RealTime IT News

Feds Say: Ban All Sales of Phone Records

WASHINGTON -- Two of the nation's top regulators urged lawmakers today to ban the sale of consumer telephone information by not only online brokers but also by telephone companies.

The comments by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin and Federal Trade Commissioner Jon Liebowitz came during a House Energy and Commerce hearing probing the source of black-market telephone data, including call records and location of the calls, for sale over the Internet.

Lawmakers had previously focused on the online brokers selling the data and the security measures of the telephone carriers. Martin and Liebowitz, though, went a step further and suggested telephone companies too should be barred from selling consumer data.

"I believe that Congress could specifically make illegal the commercial availability of consumers' phone records," Martin said. "If any entity is found to be selling this information for a fee, regardless of how it obtained such information, it would face liability."

Agreeing with Martin, Liebowitz said the sale of telephone records is a "serious intrusion into consumers' privacy and could result in stalking, harassment and embarrassment."

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone carriers are obligated to protect the Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) of consumers. The CPNI is considered sensitive personal data, because it includes logs of calls that individuals or businesses initiate and receive on their phones.

The carriers are currently allowed to sell customer data to their affiliates, agents and joint venture partners. As originally passed in the Telecom Act, phone companies were obligated to get an opt-in permission from consumers in order to sell the information, but a court decision overturned that ruling.

Consumers are now obligated to opt out of the arrangement.

"Why don’t we make opt-in a moot point? Let's just outlaw [selling consumer phone data]," Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Tex.) said.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts agreed with Barton.

"I think we also need to analyze the measures taken by phone companies to secure consumer data, [along with] the rules under which they are permitted to disclose and share consumer information with not only their own affiliates, but also with joint venture partners and private contractors," he said.

Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) added, "It is time that phone companies stop being freewheeling with their customers' calls."

Schakowsky's bill is torturously known as the Stop Attempted Fraud Against Everyone's Cell and Land Lines (SAFE CALL Act), which also targets pretexting.

Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) also have introduced legislation primarily aimed at the data brokers.

Their legislation targets people who pose as account holders to access telephone and cell phone records, a practice known as "pretexting."

Current law contains criminal penalties for obtaining another person's financial records under false pretexts, but similar penalties do not exist specifically for telephone records.

Under the Inslee-Blackburn bill, these privacy violations would be criminal offenses, punishable by up to five years in prison and $250,000 in fines for individuals and up to $500,000 in fines for companies.

"It is time to put any question of legality about pretexting to rest," Blackburn said. "It is time to tell phone-call brokers that getting into our private business is not going to be the bread and butter of their business."

Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has introduced similar legislation in the Senate.