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Ajit Pai Refuses to Brief Congress About Why Bounty Hunters Can Buy Cell Phone Location Data

The Chairman's staff said the selling of location data is not a 'threat to the safety of human life or property that the FCC will address during the Trump shutdown.'

by Jason Koebler
Jan 14 2019, 11:59pm

Image: Gage Skidmore/Flickr

Monday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai refused to meet with a Congressional committee to discuss the underground sale of real-time cell phone location data.

Last week a Motherboard investigation revealed that cell phone providers and location aggregators have allowed real-time smartphone location data to be sold to bounty hunters, landlords, and used car salesman, among others. Soon after the story broke, Frank Pallone, the Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, asked Pai for an emergency briefing on the issue. Monday, Pai refused that request, according to Pallone’s office.

“Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to brief Energy and Commerce Committee staff on the real-time tracking of cell phone location, as reported by Motherboard last week,” Pallone said in an emailed statement. “In a phone conversation today, his staff asserted that these egregious actions are not a threat to the safety of human life or property that the FCC will address during the Trump shutdown.”

Pallone added that using the shutdown as an excuse to not meet with Congress is a copout: “There’s nothing in the law that should stop the Chairman personally from meeting about this serious threat that could allow criminals to track the location of police officers on patrol, victims of domestic abuse, or foreign adversaries to track military personnel on American soil.”

Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner of the FCC, also reiterated her calls that the FCC needs to investigate.

"Your wireless phone location data is being sold by shady entities that you never gave permission to track you. That’s a personal and national security issue. No law stops the FCC from meeting with Congress to discuss this right now. It needs investigation," she tweeted Monday.

In 2016, Congress gutted rules proposed by Pai’s predecessor that would have given consumers much more control over how their personal data could be used by telecom companies. Pai, a former telecom lobbyist, has generally taken a pro-industry stance at every turn, most notably with his vote to repeal federal net neutrality protections. The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

“The FCC once again appears to have dragged its feet in protection consumers,” Pallone wrote in his letter to Pai. “The FCC must take immediate action to ensure no wireless carrier is allowing the rampant disclosure of real-time location data.”

Update: This piece has been updated to include comment from Jessica Rosenworcel, commissioner of the FCC.