Seems like every few months the telcos get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Here we go again with illegal data capture and selling.
The FCC got it right this time. They did an investigation of the major carriers around geo-location data collection. Surprise! They found out that they were engaged in illegal activities. According to FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, what they were doing was against actual federal laws.
However, before we lavish kudos on them, there had been some ongoing concern that the FCC was reluctant to even get involved. Note Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s comments “For more than a year, the FCC was silent after news reports alerted us that for just a few hundred dollars, shady middlemen could sell your location within a few hundred meters based on your wireless phone data,” said FCC. “It’s chilling to consider what a black market could do with this data. It puts the safety and privacy of every American with a wireless phone at risk.”
That troubles me since the FCC is here to protect the public, not the carriers. And, since Pai is friendly to the carriers, it will be interesting to see what type of penalty will be levied against the ones found guilty. Alas, however, one can only hope, since this activity was, indeed, against federal laws, that the punishment will, actually, sting them enough to make them think twice, going forward.
However, the telcos have a history of being slow learners. This latest transgression puts pressure on Pai, regardless of his relationship with the telcos, to make a political call to punish, appropriately, the perpetrators to prevent a public outcry of favoritism.
Given the fact that this is a reoccurring problem with them, it is apparent that any punishments from the FCC, or some other government body, is just not doing its the job. Obviously, previous punishments were not much of a deterrent. At this stage, sadly, I do not believe that, even, a substantial penalty is likely to deter such future activities if past performance is any indicator.
And, I am not the only skeptic, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore) seemed to share my reticence when he tweeted, “I’m eager to see whether the FCC will truly hold wireless companies accountable or let them off with a slap on the wrist.” However, it will be interesting to see how this shakes out.
This issue revolves around how and what the telcos collect, and what they do with what they collect. It is one of many such past issues. This time it has to do with collecting data that deals with user location.
What is really ridiculous is that three of the four major carriers’ moral compasses point in the wrong direction. They just ignored the request to cease and merrily went about their data collection practices. (Surprisingly, Verizon took the high road and stopped this practice after the last time it was caught.)
The original findings of selling geo-location, without consent, were revealed about two years ago. Then, about one year ago, a report suggested T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint did not cease the practice when it was discovered. They continued with the practice despite being asked to stop and making public commitments to stop. In December 2019, almost 18 months after the initial reports, the FCC, under pressure, finally agreed to an investigation.
This particular practice is a bit more nefarious than some of the others. It was brought to light by a security researcher in Silicon Valley, which managed to prove that these carriers were able to monitor data emanating from cell towers. This data could pinpoint, with relative accuracy (within a few hundred meters), the user’s location. While this data is not good enough for a CIA hitman to find you, it certainly is good enough for a number of other segments such as retail (which mall you are visiting), for example, to capitalize on.
However, what is more troubling is the carriers seemed to be indifferent to whom the data was sold (another moral compass indicator). This data was sold to any party willing to pay, with the telcos having no concern about the buyer’s moral makeup, either (par for the course).
The data would usually be sold to companies such as Securus or Microbilt, before being farmed out further afield with little official oversight. This data might end up in the hands of a bounty hunter, searching for a fugitive who skipped bail, or with more nefarious characters attempting to use it for identity theft.
So, here we stand again. Another transgression from telcos who, seemingly, will stop at nothing to make a buck – legality or morality be damned.
I guess I live in a fantasy world where doing the right thing and following moral and ethical guidelines is the rule, not the exception.
This is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what is coming down the pike – and, across most ecosystems. With AI permeating every technology, platform, and segment, there is cause for concern if one’s moral compass points in the wrong direction. AI-enhanced technologies will be far more dangerous in the wrong (or greedy) hands, going forward.
So, I am hopeful the FCC will see this as a harbinger of a far greater issue that encompasses privacy and security across a far greater landscape than just geo-location – and move to make the right decision.