By Kevin Nangeroni
In an age where companies have an unprecedented amount of access to consumer privacy data, it is often difficult to determine how and when these companies should be punished for the mishandling of personal information. In a recent investigation conducted by Motherboard, a black market for consumer location data was discovered. Companies such as T-Mobile, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon were selling the information to “location aggregators”, who were then bidding the obtained information to a host of buyers. These buyers included bail bondsman who would use the information to locate and apprehend fugitives on the run, all the while eluding the need for a warrant. The phone companies that are responsible for obtaining the information in the first place strictly prohibit this use of consumer data. Similar accusations were made against the phone companies eight months ago, at which time they vowed to sever ties with the location services companies. The new findings show that many of these companies did not stand by this promise, and seem to have escaped punishment altogether.
House Democrats recently sent a letter to FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, demanding an emergency briefing on the status of the FCC’s progress in regulating this type of illegal behavior. The FCC had been informed 8 months prior to the improper activity and is now accused of not acting swiftly enough to target the accused telecom companies. Chairman Pai has declined the request by House Democrats, arguing that his agency’s investigation is ongoing, yet was suspended due to the government shut down. He recently issued a statement indicating that he would be open to the request once the government reopened.
Opponents argue that Pai is beholden to the telecom companies, as they previously lobbied his FCC to support a rollback of established privacy rules. Pai supported the measure in 2017 and relinquished authority to the FTC to handle future privacy violations to consumers. In essence, this decision would mean that the FCC might not even have the power to punish bad actors should their investigation prove malevolence on the part of the phone companies.
The cause for concern in this situation is clear and evident. Under no circumstances should companies be allowed to engage in conduct that violates the privacy rights of consumers, with no clear oversight. While it is obvious that the sharing of location data is illegal in and of itself, what is more, troubling is the fact that the agency responsible for investigating the accusations has relinquished any authoritative power over the matter.
Chairman Pai owes a duty as the head of a federal agency to adhere to the demand of House members and should provide an update as to where the investigation stands at this point in time. The fact that the government has been shut down in no way prevents him from answering to Congress. If he is unwilling to do so, the investigation should be promptly handed over to the FTC, who at this point in time seems to be in a better position to ensure any guilty companies face punishment and are regulated accordingly in the future.
Student Bio: Kevin Nangeroni is a second-year student at Suffolk University Law School and a staff member on the Journal of High Technology Law.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this blog are the views of the author alone and do not represent the views of JHTL or Suffolk University Law School.