15 senators demand FCC, FTC investigate carriers selling location data

This is the fourth time lawmakers have asked for answers on carriers selling location data. So far, no answers.

Alfred Ng Senior Reporter / CNET News
Alfred Ng was a senior reporter for CNET News. He was raised in Brooklyn and previously worked on the New York Daily News's social media and breaking news teams.
Alfred Ng
3 min read
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Lawmakers have ramped up their call for investigations on mobile carriers.

In a letter signed by 15 senators and sent Thursday, the group of lawmakers demanded investigations from the Federal Trade Commission and the Federal Communication Commission on wireless carriers selling customer location data to third parties.

That location data went to about 70 companies, without customers' consent, the Congress members said in the letter. The document is signed by senators including Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

"It is clear that these wireless carriers have failed to regulate themselves or police the practices of their business partners, and have needlessly exposed American consumers to serious harm," said the letter, addressed to FCC chairman Ajit Pai and FTC chairman Joseph Simons.

The FTC and FCC didn't respond to a request for comment.

The letter comes more than two weeks after a Motherboard investigation found that carriers like AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon were still providing customer location data, often for legitimate purposes like emergency services, but then handing it over to shady buyers such as some bounty hunters.

The backlash caused T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon to promise to completely end the practice by March, though many lawmakers remain skeptical. Sprint announced on Jan. 16 that it was also ending the practice, but it doesn't state a deadline.

Senators are asking the FTC and FCC to investigate if wireless carriers and data aggregators knew that they were obtaining people's location data without their knowledge and consent. The lawmakers also request that mobile carriers be required to notify every single person whose location data was sold, and who bought that information.

The four major US carriers spent a combined $36.9 million on lobbying over privacy issues in 2018, according to government documents.

The Thursday letter is the latest call for action on mobile carriers selling location data. On Jan. 9, Sens. Wyden, Harris and Mark Warner, a Democrat from Virginia, called on the FCC to investigate the issue, On Jan. 11, the House Energy and Commerce committee asked for an emergency briefing from the agency.

On Jan. 16, Republicans on that committee also demanded answers from all major carriers. Despite the mounting requests for answers, the FCC hasn't indicated that it's actively investigating mobile carriers.

Because federal agencies like the FCC are furloughed, Chairman Pai declined the emergency briefing with Congress members over the issue. At the time, an FCC spokesperson said the agency was investigating wireless carriers selling location data but had paused the inquiry because of the government shutdown.

"Unfortunately, we were required to suspend that investigation earlier this month because of the lapse in funding, and pursuant to guidance from our expert attorneys, the career staff that is working on this issue are currently on furlough," the statement said.

The senators in the latest call for investigations are hoping for a response by Feb. 5.

"The wireless industry has repeatedly demonstrated a blatant disregard for its customers' privacy," the letter said. "It is therefore vital that regulators take swift action to ensure that consumers are protected."    

You can read the letter here: 

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