FCC fines cell companies for allegedly selling customers' location information

At least two companies plan to fight the fine.
Posted at 9:50 AM, Apr 30, 2024

The Federal Communications Commission fined the nation's largest cellphone carriers a combined $196 million for allegedly illegally sharing access to customers’ location information without consent.

The FCC said the carriers did not take "reasonable measures to protect that information against unauthorized disclosure."

The four carriers facing fines are Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T and Verizon. Sprint and T-Mobile have since merged and will face a collective fine of over $92 million. AT&T is being penalized over $57 million, while Verizon is facing a nearly $47 million fine.

T-Mobile and AT&T said they plan to fight the decision.

The FCC alleges that the carriers violated section 222 of the Communications Act, which requires cell providers to take reasonable measures to protect certain customer information.

“Our communications providers have access to some of the most sensitive information about us. These carriers failed to protect the information entrusted to them. Here, we are talking about some of the most sensitive data in their possession: customers’ real-time location information, revealing where they go and who they are,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “As we resolve these cases – which were first proposed by the last Administration – the Commission remains committed to holding all carriers accountable and making sure they fulfill their obligations to their customers as stewards of this most private data.”

The FCC said it began investigating the companies after reports surfaced that customers' information was being divulged by carriers to a Missouri sheriff through a “location-finding service." Through that investigation, the FCC said it learned that the carriers sold location data to "aggregators," who the FCC said often resold this information.

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The FCC claimed that even after carriers were notified that they lacked privacy safeguards, the companies continued selling the information.

Several carriers expressed their disagreement with the FCC's decision.

"The FCC order lacks both legal and factual merit," an AT&T spokesperson said. "It unfairly holds us responsible for another company’s violation of our contractual requirements to obtain consent, ignores the immediate steps we took to address that company’s failures, and perversely punishes us for supporting life-saving location services like emergency medical alerts and roadside assistance that the FCC itself previously encouraged. We expect to appeal the order after conducting a legal review.”

T-Mobile also issued a statement condemning the decision.

"This industry-wide third-party aggregator location-based services program was discontinued more than five years ago after we took steps to ensure that critical services like roadside assistance, fraud protection and emergency response would not be disrupted." T-Mobile said. "We take our responsibility to keep customer data secure very seriously and have always supported the FCC’s commitment to protecting consumers, but this decision is wrong, and the fine is excessive. We intend to challenge it."