Jan 31, 2020 - Technology

FCC says wireless location data sharing broke the law

FCC commissioners testify before Congress in December. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai told lawmakers Friday he intends to propose fines against at least one U.S. wireless carrier for sharing customers' real-time location data with outside parties without the subscribers' knowledge or consent.

Why it matters: The FCC has been investigating for more than a year following revelations that subscriber location data from AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint made its way to a resale market used by bounty hunters.

Driving the news: Pai said in letters to several lawmakers that the agency's investigation has found that "one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law."

  • Pai said he intends to seek commission approval of one or more proposed fines "in the coming days."

What they're saying: Democrats who have called on the FCC for an investigation said this conclusion is overdue.

  • "This is certainly a step in the right direction, but I’ll be watching to make sure the FCC doesn’t just let these lawbreakers off the hook with a slap on the wrist," said House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, who along with 10 other Democrats wrote a November letter to Pai about the issue.
  • "It’s a shame that it took so long for the FCC to reach a conclusion that was so obvious," Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said.
  • "I’m eager to see whether the FCC will truly hold wireless companies accountable, or let them off with a slap on the wrist," said Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, who raised alarms at the FCC in 2018 about the sale of wireless location data.

Go deeper: Location data is ground zero in privacy wars

Go deeper

FCC to propose fining wireless carriers for location sharing

FCC commissioners, with chairman Ajit Pai at left, testify before a House committee in Dec. 2019. Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The FCC plans to propose fines against wireless carriers totaling roughly $200 million for improperly sharing customers' location information with outside parties, according to people familiar with the matter.

Why it matters: Lawmakers and others have been calling for agency action for over a year after revelations that location data from AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint made its way to a resale market used by bounty hunters.

Amid lawmaker pressure, FCC plans California outing to probe fires

Firefighters watch as the Kincade Fire burns in Healdsburg, California, in October 2019. Photo: Philip Pacheco/AFP

The Federal Communications Commission is planning a field hearing in California following bipartisan pressure to get out of Washington and hear firsthand how last fall's wildfires affected communications networks in the state.

Why it matters: Power outages prompted by the fires brought cell sites down, interrupting wireless service for California residents. Policymakers hope informed guidance out of Washington could help minimize widespread outages next fire season.

Wall Street's obsession with an esoteric airwaves fight

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Wall Street has become fascinated with a battle over 5G airwaves at the Federal Communications Commission — not because of the next-generation technology itself, but because of the potential investment wins.

Why it matters: The twists and turns of the FCC's debate over a swath of satellite airwaves has put billions on the line and shows a divide between D.C. and Wall Street on how to think about 5G.