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Report: FCC to Hit Big Four Carriers with Big Fines

The FCC is preparing to fine all the major wireless carriers--AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile--hundreds of millions of dollars for sharing customer location data without their permission, according to The Wall Street Journal.

A source familiar with the notices of apparent liability (NALs) said at press time they had been circulated but not all commissioners had voted them. They were expected to be announced Friday (Feb. 28), although they were not on the agenda for the FCC's public meeting, where enforcement actions are often voted at the end of the proceedings.

A spokesperson for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the commission does not comment on enforcement actions until they are adopted and announced, but FCC Chairman Ajit Pai had already revealed last month that one or more of those carriers would be the target of an enforcement action following an investigation by the FCC's Enforcement Bureau, which determined that one, "or more," of the carriers it was investigating for disclosing real-time location data broke the law.

At that time, CTIA: The Wireless Association said: “Wireless companies are committed to protecting the privacy of consumers and share location data only with customer consent. Upon hearing allegations of misuse of the data, carriers quickly investigated, suspended access to the data and subsequently terminated those programs.”

Related: Carriers Say They Have Cut Ties With Location Data Aggregators

The FCC has been investigating carriers' alleged selling/sharing of geographic location information with third party data aggregators, information that reportedly made its way to bounty hunters and others, data their subs can't opt out of because it is used to provide the underlying service.

Pai signaled he would be circulating one or more NALS for Forfeiture (essentially a fine) related to its finding.

The Open Technology Institute, reacting to the news, pointed out that it had joined with Free Press and the Center on Privacy & Technology at Georgetown Law filed a complaint with the FCC calling for the investigation into the issue of carriers disclosing location data. 

“While the FCC’s action is welcome, it is long overdue," said OTI policy director Sharon Bradford Franklin. "Consumers trust wireless providers to collect their location information for the sole purpose of providing the wireless communications services we all rely on every day. This location information is so sensitive and revealing of the patterns of everyday life that the Supreme Court has required law enforcement to get a warrant before collecting this data. Meanwhile, wireless carriers sold this sensitive information without the consent of their customers, in direct violation of the Communications Act and the FCC’s rules."