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FCC fines big phone companies nearly $200 million for sharing customer location data

Shubhangi Goel   

FCC fines big phone companies nearly $200 million for sharing customer location data
  • The FCC fined four US network providers nearly $200 million for illegally sharing customer data.
  • The FCC said the companies sold data to "aggregators," who resold it to third parties.

The Federal Communications Commission fined four US wireless carriers close to $200 million for illegally sharing access to customers' location data.

AT&T was fined over $57 million, and Verizon was fined almost $47 million. T-Mobile and Sprint, which merged since the investigation began, have been fined $92 million collectively, the FCC said on Monday.

"Our communications providers have access to some of the most sensitive information about us," FCC chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in the statement. "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."

The fines were initially proposed in February 2020. The FCC said on Monday that these phone companies sold customers' location data to "aggregators," who resold access to the data to companies that provide location-based services.

Companies that use location-based services include prison phone services, ride-hailing apps, and phone games. Such data can also be used by companies to send targeted ads based on location.

The FCC said dozens of location-based services accessed phone companies' customer data without ensuring consumer consent, even after the phone companies were aware of the links.

The practice of sharing data in this way was the focus of a 2018 congressional probe.

In response to the FCC fines, all three phone providers said they expect to appeal the decision.

"We take our responsibility to keep customer data secure very seriously and have always supported the FCC's commitment to protecting consumers," T-Mobile said in a statement to Business Insider. "But this decision is wrong, and the fine is excessive. We intend to challenge it."

"The FCC order lacks both legal and factual merit," AT&T said in a statement to BI. "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."

Verizon did not immediately respond to BI's request for comment sent outside regular business hours. The company told CNN that one bad actor who gained access to customer data was shut down, and that Verizon would appeal the FCC's decision.

Senator Ron Wyden, who led the 2018 congressional probe, called the fines proposed in 2020 "comically inadequate." Now — with the fines reduced for T-Mobile and Verizon since 2020 — he said in a Thursday statement that he applauded the FCC for "holding these companies accountable."