Top Telecoms Accused of Selling Location Data, U.S Regulators Propose Fines

  • The wireless firms exposed mobile network user location data and failed to prevent unauthorized access to it.
  • Some privacy activists also said that the penalties failed to go far enough.

The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proposed fines for America's largest wireless carriers amounting to $208 million for trading customers’ location information without taking adequate precautions.

What happened?
Some US regulators have moved against the nation's four major wireless carriers, namely T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint for selling users’ location data to a third party without authorization from customers.

The amount of fines for each carrier include:
  • T-Mobile: more than $91 million
  • AT&T: over $57 million
  • Verizon: more than $48 million
  • Sprint: over $12 million

The wireless firms disclosed mobile network user location data and failed to prevent unauthorized access to it.

The investigation 
The FCC, as reported, dug a report stating that a sheriff in Missouri used a "location-finding service" operated by Securus—a prison communications services company, to track whereabouts of people including a judge and law enforcement officers.

  • As per the regulator body, wireless carriers provided access to customer location data to "aggregators" who then resold information to services such as Securus, according to the regulator.
  • "Information about a wireless customer's location is highly personal and sensitive," said FCC chairman Ajit Pai.
  • The telecom firms in the country have known for more than a decade that it is of utmost importance to safeguard location data gathered on users, Pai added.
  • The amounts of the fines, however, varies based on how long carriers continued to breach these norms and how many parties had access to it.

What lies further for the accused?
Now, the telecom firms will have to evidence their arguments to the commission before the fines are finalized. But some privacy activists also said that the penalties failed to go far enough.

  • Lisa Hayes of the Center for Democracy & Technology, a digital rights organization, called the fines too little and too late. "The current lack of a law means that anyone willing to spend a few hundred dollars can buy the location data of another person at any moment in time," she said.
  • Gaurav Laroia from Consumer group Free Press said that the FCC action is delayed by more than a year, after activists filed complaints on these practices.

Telecos response
Sprint told a media firm that it is reviewing the FCC's notice regarding the fine, and added that it takes customer privacy seriously. T-Mobile said it took quick action as soon as it learned about the misuse of the location aggregator program by the feckless third parties. The firm plans to dispute the FCC's conclusions and the fine. Verizon and AT&T are yet to respond to the announcement.