FCC Chairman Refuses Emergency Briefing for House E&C

Ajit Pai, FCC Commisioner

(Photo: Gage Skidmore)

House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Frank Pallone, D-N.J., said Monday that Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai is refusing to give the committee an emergency briefing on wireless carrier data disclosure issues, and is citing the partial Federal government shutdown–which includes the FCC–for his decision.

Pallone called for an emergency briefing on Friday, asking the FCC to explain why it “has yet to end wireless carriers’ unauthorized disclosure of consumers’ real-time location data and what actions the FCC has taken to address this issue to date.”

The news of wireless carriers sharing of location data with third parties broke last week. According to a report in Motherboard, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Sprint have been selling customer location data “in an unregulated market that trickles down to bounty hunters and people not authorized to handle such information.” When the first report came out, Democratic senators and FCC Commissioners voiced strong opposition to the practices. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, called on the commission to investigate the report, and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., agreed, saying “it’s time for the FCC to get its act together.”

In his letter to Pai, Pallone explained that “[a]n emergency briefing is necessary in the interest of public safety and national security, and therefore cannot wait until President Trump decides to reopen the government.”

However, Pai’s office disagreed with Pallone’s characterization of the risk posed by the data disclosure.

“Today, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai refused to brief Energy and Commerce Committee staff on the real-time tracking of cell phone location,” Pallone said in a statement today. “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.”

While Pai and the other four FCC Commissioners have been termed “essential” and are still working through the shutdown, the FCC had to largely shutter its doors after running out of funding on Jan. 3. Currently, it is only handing auctions and issues that threaten life or property.

Unsurprisingly, Pallone rejected Pai’s assessment that the shutdown is preventing the FCC chairman from briefing the committee.

“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,” he said.

Pallone did note that Rosenworcel was available for a briefing despite the shutdown, but that she does not have Pai’s level of authority over FCC resources.

“As we told Committee staff today, the Commission has been investigating wireless carriers’ handling of location information,” said an FCC spokesperson in a statement. “Unfortunately, we were required to suspend that investigation earlier this month because of the lapse in funding, and pursuant to guidance from our expert attorneys, the career staff that is working on this issue are currently on furlough. Of course, when the Commission is able to resume normal operations, the investigation will continue.”

While the hearing won’t happen before the shutdown ends, Pallone vowed to keep up the pressure on the FCC. “The Committee will continue to press the FCC to prioritize public safety, national security, and protecting consumers,” Pallone said.

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