Ajit Pai gives carriers free pass on privacy violations during FCC shutdown

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai refused a Democratic lawmaker’s request to immediately address a privacy scandal involving wireless carriers, saying that it can wait until after the government shutdown is over.

A Motherboard investigation published last week found that T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T are still selling their mobile customers’ real-time location information to third-party data brokers, despite promises in June 2018 to stop the controversial practice.

House Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) asked Pai for an “emergency briefing” to explain why the FCC “has yet to end wireless carriers’ unauthorized disclosure of consumers’ real-time location data,” and for an update on “what actions the FCC has taken to address this issue to date.”

Pai’s FCC could take action, despite the 2017 repeal of the commission’s broadband privacy rules. Phone carriers are legally required to protect “Customer Proprietary Network Information [CPNI],” and the FCC’s definition of CPNI includes location data.

“An emergency briefing is necessary in the interest of public safety and national security, and therefore cannot wait until President Trump decides to reopen the government,” Pallone wrote to Pai, noting that “[b]ad actors can use location information to track individuals’ physical movements without their knowledge or consent.”

“Not a threat to safety,” according to FCC

Pai did not agree with Pallone, it turns out.

“Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to brief Energy and Commerce Committee staff on the real-time tracking of cell phone location[s],” Pallone said in a statement yesterday. “In a phone conversation today, his staff asserted that these egregious actions are not a threat to the safety of human life or property that the FCC will address during the Trump shutdown.”

Pai’s office defended the decision when contacted by Ars today. The FCC “has been investigating wireless carriers’ handling of location information,” an FCC spokesperson said. “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. Of course, when the Commission is able to resume normal operations, the investigation will continue.”

Pai’s decision was criticized by FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is part of the FCC’s Democratic minority.

“Your wireless phone location data is being sold by shady entities that you never gave permission to track you,” Rosenworcel wrote in a tweet. “That’s a personal and national security issue. No law stops the @FCC from meeting with Congress to discuss this right now. It needs investigation.”

The FCC is mostly closed during the shutdown. Some public-facing resources like the consumer complaint center are not accessible online, though the Network Outage Reporting System and certain other systems are still available, and some commission staffers are still working.

Rosenworcel made herself available to Congress, but “as a minority member of the FCC, she does not have the authority to direct resources at the Commission,” Pallone said.

Pai has kept up a steady stream of tweets during the shutdown, mostly about non-FCC matters. On January 3, he tweeted that “The @FCC will suspend most operations this afternoon. We’ll continue work on [spectrum] auctions & matters necessary to the protection of life & property.”

Pai also responded to a tweet suggesting that broadcasters can “run through Carlin’s list of swear words” on live TV while the FCC is closed down. “I’ll be on the job for the duration and there’s also a sufficiently long statute of limitations… so I’d advise against trying any &$^#*%!” Pai wrote.

Pallone argued that immediate action on carriers’ invasions of consumers’ privacy is necessary for the protection of Americans. “There’s nothing in the law that should stop the Chairman personally from meeting about this serious threat that could allow criminals to track the location of police officers on patrol, victims of domestic abuse, or foreign adversaries to track military personnel on American soil,” Pallone said.

The bad publicity for mobile carriers has had an effect despite FCC inaction. AT&T and T-Mobile last week pledged to stop the location data sharing by March.

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