FCC Seeks Fines Against Top Cellphone Carriers Following Probe

cellphone data

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from major U.S. cellphone carriers after officials determined the companies didn’t ensure the privacy of customers’ real-time locations, The Wall Street Journal reported on Thursday (Feb. 27), citing sources familiar with the matter.

The FCC has already notified AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon of “pending notices of apparent liability,” according to the sources. The notices aren’t final, as the mobile phone carriers could argue they aren’t liable or should pay less. If any penalties are imposed, it would be up to the U.S. Justice Department to collect the fines. 

According to one source, the FCC didn’t put a settlement agreement on the table for the carriers. That could trigger carriers to fight the charges by going “through the commission’s administrative process.”

AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon had agreed to ease up on data sharing following reports by an independent agency that data aggregators were “misusing feeds that provided subscribers’ real-time locations.” The carriers provided subscriber information upon request. That data was then shared with middleman firms. The middlemen firms then went on to share that same data with hundreds of businesses.

Although the carriers told members of Congress they were no longer letting the middleman companies tap their data feeds, it was discovered that some carriers were still sharing their subscribers’ coordinates. 

In order to route calls and data, cellphone carriers have to know the coordinates of their subscribers. That gives cellphone carriers a “more consistent view of customers’ movements.” App developers use settings users can simply turn off, like GPS, Wi-Fi and other data sources. 

In January, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote in a letter to Congress that wireless networks that sold their customers’ real-time location data violated U.S. law. Pai said “a formal notice of liability” affecting at least one wireless firm would be sent by him to the five-member FCC commission.



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