FCC concludes some carriers broke the law by collecting users real-time location

Ryan is an editor at TechForge Media with over a decade of experience covering the latest technology and interviewing leading industry figures. He can often be sighted at tech conferences with a strong coffee in one hand and a laptop in the other. If it's geeky, he’s probably into it. Find him on Twitter: @Gadget_Ry

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote a letter (PDF) to Congress on Friday in which he confirmed that some carriers broke federal law by collecting users’ real-time location data.

Pai did not name specifically which carriers allegedly broke the law but only wrote that the FCC’s enforcement bureau “concluded that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law.”

The FCC was asked to launch an investigation after a Motherboard report exposed how carriers including T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T had sold real-time location data of users. Such data could be obtained by complete strangers for a relatively small amount of money.

Pai’s letter all but confirms Motherboard’s findings. In response to the investigation, Pai said a “formal notice of liability” would be sent to his fellow commissioners for consideration.

Speaking to Reuters, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called it a “shame” the FCC took so long to carry out its investigation. “It’s chilling to consider what a black market could do with this data,” she added.

A security researcher in 2018 said that it was possible “data from a California-based tech firm” tracked the mobile users of numerous carriers without their consent. US Senator Rony Wyden told the FCC that same year that carriers were selling location data “to a shady prison phone company” that enabled prison guards to track citizens’ cell phones. 

A trade group representing US carriers said that “upon hearing allegations of misuse of the data, carriers quickly investigated, suspended access to the data and subsequently terminated those programs.”

(Image Credit: Ajit Pai by Gage Skidmore under CC BY-SA 2.0 license)

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