FCC fines major telcos for selling users’ location data

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The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has fined major US telcos for illegally selling their subscribers’ location data to third-party data brokers.

According to an FCC statement, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile US – the latter two having merged in 2020 – were ordered to pay $57 million, $47 million, $12 million, and $80 million, respectively, for their involvement in the unauthorised sharing of customers’ sensitive location information.

“Our communications providers have access to some of the most sensitive information about us,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “These carriers failed to protect the information entrusted to them. Here, we are talking about some of the most sensitive data in their possession: Customers’ real-time location information, revealing where they go and who they are.”

The FCC’s investigation revealed that the telcos had sold their subscribers’ location data to data aggregators, who subsequently resold the information to third-party location service companies. The commission believes that each of the four carriers attempted to offload its obligations to obtain customer consent to these downstream buyers, resulting in a lack of valid consent for the data sharing.

The FCC’s Enforcement Bureau stressed that the law “makes clear that carriers cannot disclaim their statutory obligations to protect their customers’ CPNI [customer proprietary network information] by delegating such obligations to third parties.”

The issue of telecom companies providing customer location data first came to light in 2018 when US Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) urged then-FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to investigate claims that Securus Technologies had purchased real-time location data from major wireless carriers. While the FCC under Pai concluded in 2020 that the telcos had likely broken the law, the consequences remained unclear.

Senator Wyden applauded the FCC’s decision, stating: “No one who signed up for a cell plan thought they were giving permission for their phone company to sell a detailed record of their movements to anyone with a credit card. I applaud the FCC for following through on my investigation and holding these companies accountable for putting customers’ lives and privacy at risk.”

The unauthorised sale of location data not only raises privacy concerns but also has national security implications. A recent Duke University study found that information on US military personnel and their families was available from data brokers for as little as $0.12 per record, highlighting the potential risks associated with such practices.

While the FCC’s action aims to hold the telcos accountable, privacy advocates, and legislators continue to push for stronger measures to protect consumer data—including a proposed bill to ban the US government from purchasing citizens’ information from data brokers.

(Photo by Kelsey Knight)

See also: FCC votes to restore net neutrality protections

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Tags: at&T, fcc, location, regulation, sprint, t-mobile, verizon


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