FCC to punish carriers for selling your location data

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai dropped a bit of a bombshell on Friday, announcing that the commission would be going after some of the major wireless carriers, potentially including T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T. The reason is that one or more of these carriers are still selling your location data, and potentially not just to advertisers. Since most people’s cell phones constantly track their location, this news has clearly alarmed quite a few folks. This revelation comes despite nearly all of the carriers having previously promised to end the practice. (Ars Technica)

Mobile network operators who sold their customers’ real-time location data violated US law and the Federal Communications Commission will try to punish carriers that did so, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai wrote today.

“[T]he FCC’s Enforcement Bureau has completed its extensive investigation and… it has concluded that one or more wireless carriers apparently violated federal law,” Pai wrote in a letter today to Democratic members of Congress who asked for an update on the probe.

“I am committed to ensuring that all entities subject to our jurisdiction comply with the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules, including those that protect consumers’ sensitive information, such as real-time location data,” Pai’s letter continued.

By this point, I’m pretty sure that most of us know that our cell phones track our movements. As I’ve mentioned here in the past, I basically surrendered to the Googleplex years ago, for better or worse. I still get monthly updates offering to “review” my travel over the past thirty days, including how many miles I travelled in a vehicle or on foot and a list of businesses or other places I’ve visited. (And would you care to write a review or upload a photo of any of these places?) Yes, it’s kind of creepy, but I eventually just started ignoring it.

I’d long assumed that the carriers were collecting the data to sell to companies that want to more efficiently target advertising toward us. But after a data breach in 2018, it was revealed that they were selling the information to third-party data brokers who then shopped it around to bounty hunters and others not authorized to receive it. At some point, even the more lackadaisical people like myself have to become concerned.

Also, as mentioned above, Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint pledged to stop selling this information to those types of data brokers, but a 2019 investigation revealed that at least some of them were still doing it. That brings us to the FCC showdown that’s now shaping up.

For the most part, I’ve never managed to get all that upset about the idea of the carriers selling data to other businesses for advertising purposes. But knowing that real-time tracking of everyone’s movements is being pawned off to shadowy data brokers of dubious integrity is obviously alarming. We should also keep in mind, however, that beefed up data privacy may come at a price. The only reason that so much content on the web is “free” for most of us was best summed up by (of all people) Brian Stelter when he said, “If something’s free, that means you’re the product.”

The big tech platforms and major carriers have to make a profit somehow. And if they can’t sell your data, they’ll find another way to pass the costs down to you. As with most things in the world of Big Tech… it’s complicated.

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