The Federal Communications Commission is preparing to recommend that a fine of at least $200 million be levied against four major US wireless carriers — AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile — in the wake of a serious consumer privacy violation that came to light back in 2018. It involved the disclosure of some real-time location data connected to the carriers’ customers, and anonymous sources have told reporters that the fine will be announced by Friday — though the companies will have a chance to oppose that financial penalty before it becomes official, at which point the exact amount could also be adjusted and possibly increased.
News of the proposed penalty first surfaced late Thursday (via Reuters), and follows on the heels of FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel calling it a “shame” back in January that the commission had not yet taken final action over the fact that “shady middlemen could sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data.” In fact, it’s downright “chilling,” she added, to imagine what could happen to this data on the black market. Oh, and last month also saw FCC chairman Ajit Pai declare that “one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law” here.
This all stems from a discovery that the major carriers were selling customer location data to third-parties — a practice, mind you, that some of them have stressed has legitimate purposes. AT&T, for example, tried to defend the practice last year (which it says it’s since ended by has insisted that everything it did was legal) by pointing to the possibility of life-saving benefits. Like when a towing company, the carrier noted in a letter to the FCC, “receives the location of a stranded motorist who does not know the nearest mile marker; or a son or daughter uses a medical alert device to locate an injured elderly parent; or a bank uses location information to thwart fraud and identify theft.”
The rub here is that federal law prohibits the carriers from using customer location data without permission from said customers. I don’t know about you, but I certainly never gave permission for my phone carrier (one of the four above) to share my location data with third parties willy-nilly.
Is this proposed punishment enough? At least one US Senator doesn’t think so. Nevertheless, the carriers have sworn that this practice has ended, meaning your location data seemingly should no longer end up in the hands of sketchy third parties — like, shockingly, bounty hunters, which is something else that came to light as a result of the FCC’s investigation.