Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden has raised some troubling — and valid — concerns about cell phone companies' ability to track customers and sell that information to others.
Wyden told the Federal Communications Commission last week that he recently learned that a company that provides phone service to jails and prisons, Securus Technologies, buys real-time location information on cell phone users from major wireless carriers and then offers that information to law enforcement and corrections personnel as part of Securus' package of services.
Wireless carriers are legally allowed to provide this information to law enforcement but — and this is a major "but" — only after a law enforcement agency has obtained a court order. Securus, however, requires only a "pinky promise" from its customers that they have met the legal requirement to access the information that it bought from wireless carriers, Wyden says. Securus doesn't verify that an agency or officer has a valid court order; it only requires that they fill out and upload a document from Securus' self-service web portal, promising that the agent or agency has legal permission to track someone's location. Foxes and hen houses come to mind.
It's not just people who have run afoul of the law who are at risk of having information on their location sold without the required legal safeguards. The New York Times recently reported that a Missouri sheriff allegedly used this service to target a judge and members of the highway patrol. (The sheriff is now facing state and federal charges.)
Wyden also notes that federal law allows wireless carriers to share ordinary consumers' location with commercial users — but only if they have permission from the consumer. This type of information would allow a restaurant, for example, to message someone who is walking past about the daily special.
Wyden is not convinced, however, that wireless carriers that are selling private information about their customers to businesses actually have the required consent to do this, which would be a violation of federal law.
He is asking the Federal Communications Commission to promptly investigate Securus, the wireless carriers' failure to maintain control over law enforcement's access to consumers' location information, and their sale of consumers' information to private businesses.
The current chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai, has shown little appetite for protecting consumers' rights but, hopefully the seriousness of the alleged abuses Wyden has produced will spur the FCC into action. To support Wyden's effort contact him at https://www.wyden.senate.gov/contact/email-ron or contact Pai at Ajit.Pai@fcc.gov or the FCC via this toll-free number: 1-888-225-5322.