FCC fines big three carriers $196M for selling users’ real-time location data

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The Federal Communications Commission today said it fined T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon $196 million “for illegally sharing access to customers’ location information without consent and without taking reasonable measures to protect that information against unauthorized disclosure.”

The fines relate to sharing of real-time location data that was revealed in 2018. The FCC proposed the fines in 2020, when the commission had a Republican majority, and finalized them today.

All three major carriers vowed to appeal the fines after they were announced today. The three carriers also said they discontinued the data-sharing programs that the fines relate to.

The fines are $80.1 million for T-Mobile, $57.3 million for AT&T, and $46.9 million for Verizon. T-Mobile is also on the hook for a $12.2 million fine issued to Sprint, which was bought by T-Mobile shortly after the penalties were proposed over four years ago.

Today, the FCC summarized its findings as follows:

The FCC Enforcement Bureau investigations of the four carriers found that each carrier sold access to its customers’ location information to “aggregators,” who then resold access to such information to third-party location-based service providers. In doing so, each carrier attempted to offload its obligations to obtain customer consent onto downstream recipients of location information, which in many instances meant that no valid customer consent was obtained. This initial failure was compounded when, after becoming aware that their safeguards were ineffective, the carriers continued to sell access to location information without taking reasonable measures to protect it from unauthorized access.

“Shady actors” got hold of data

The problem first came to light with reports of customer location data “being disclosed by the largest American wireless carriers without customer consent or other legal authorization to a Missouri Sheriff through a ‘location-finding service’ operated by Securus, a provider of communications services to correctional facilities, to track the location of numerous individuals,” the FCC said.

Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said that news reports in 2018 “revealed that the largest wireless carriers in the country were selling our real-time location information to data aggregators, allowing this highly sensitive data to wind up in the hands of bail-bond companies, bounty hunters, and other shady actors. This ugly practice violates the law—specifically Section 222 of the Communications Act, which protects the privacy of consumer data.”

For a time after the 2018 reports, “all four carriers continued to operate their programs without putting in place reasonable safeguards to ensure that the dozens of location-based service providers with access to their customers’ location information were actually obtaining customer consent,” the FCC said.

The three carriers are ready to challenge the fines in court. “This industry-wide third-party aggregator location-based services program was discontinued more than five years ago after we took steps to ensure that critical services like roadside assistance, fraud protection and emergency response would not be disrupted,” T-Mobile said in a statement provided to Ars. “We take our responsibility to keep customer data secure very seriously and have always supported the FCC’s commitment to protecting consumers, but this decision is wrong, and the fine is excessive. We intend to challenge it.”

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