The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today proposed fines of more than $200 million against the nation’s four largest wireless carriers for selling access to their customers’ location information without taking adequate precautions to prevent unauthorized access to that data. While the fines would be among the largest the FCC has ever levied, critics say the penalties don’t go far enough to deter wireless carriers from continuing to sell customer location data.
The FCC proposed fining T-Mobile $91 million; AT&T faces more than $57 million in fines; Verizon is looking at more than $48 million in penalties; and the FCC said Sprint should pay more than $12 million.
An FCC statement (PDF) said “the size of the proposed fines for the four wireless carriers differs based on the length of time each carrier apparently continued to sell access to its customer location information without reasonable safeguards and the number of entities to which each carrier continued to sell such access.”
The fines are only “proposed” at this point because the carriers still have an opportunity to respond to the commission and contest the figures. The Wall Street Journal first reported earlier this week that the FCC was considering the fines.
The commission said it took action in response to a May 2018 story broken by The New York Times, which exposed how a company called Securus Technologies had been selling location data on customers of virtually any major mobile provider to law enforcement officials.
That same month, KrebsOnSecurity broke the news that LocationSmart — a data aggregation firm working with the major wireless carriers — had a free, unsecured demo of its service online that anyone could abuse to find the near-exact location of virtually any mobile phone in North America.
In response, the carriers promised to “wind down” location data sharing agreements with third-party companies. But in 2019, Joseph Cox at Vice.com showed that little had changed, detailing how he was able to locate a test phone after paying $300 to a bounty hunter who simply bought the data through a little-known third-party service.
Gigi Sohn is a fellow at the Georgetown Law Institute for Technology Law and Policy and a former senior adviser to former FCC Chair Tom Wheeler in 2015. Sohn said this debacle underscores the importance of having strong consumer privacy protections.
“The importance of having rules that protect consumers before they are harmed cannot be overstated,” Sohn said. “In 2016, the Wheeler FCC adopted rules that would have prevented most mobile phone users from suffering this gross violation of privacy and security. But [FCC] Chairman Pai and his friends in Congress eliminated those rules, because allegedly the burden on mobile wireless providers and their fixed broadband brethren would be too great. Clearly, they did not think for one minute about the harm that could befall consumers in the absence of strong privacy protections.”
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a longtime critic of the FCC’s inaction on wireless location data sharing, likewise called for more stringent consumer privacy laws, calling the proposed punishment “comically inadequate fines that won’t stop phone companies from abusing Americans’ privacy the next time they can make a quick buck.”
“Time and again, from Facebook to Equifax, massive companies take reckless disregard for Americans’ personal information, knowing they can write off comparatively tiny fines as the cost of doing business,” Wyden said in a written statement. “The only way to truly protect Americans’ personal information is to pass strong privacy legislation like my Mind Your Own Business Act [PDF] to put teeth into privacy laws and hold CEOs personally responsible for lying about protecting Americans’ privacy.”