RealTime IT News

House Panel Rocks Phone Record Thieves

The House Judiciary Committee approved legislation today aimed at curbing the sale of online black market telephone records.

Approved on a unanimous voice vote, the Law Enforcement and Phone Privacy Protection Act of 2006 criminalizes the fraudulent sale or solicitation of confidential phone records.

Under the bill's language, attempting to obtain the records through fraudulent means such as pretexting -- assuming the identity of a real customer -- carries a maximum prison sentence of 20 years.

The bill also imposes maximum five-year jail terms on Web sites selling or transferring confidential phone records without authorization. Individuals buying the records would also face possible prison time of up to five years.

"New federal criminal penalties are needed to deter and punish these dishonest individuals and businesses and to put them out of business permanently," bill sponsor Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said in a statement.

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 since it includes logs of calls that individuals or businesses initiate and receive on their phones.

Last summer, though, the Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) revealed a blossoming cottage industry selling individuals' personal phone records. EPIC petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for tougher rules to protect consumer data.

EPIC and the telephone carriers say their customer service representatives are being tricked out of the information through pretexting.

EPIC also claims unscrupulous operators can crack consumers' online telephone accounts and suggests evidence exists of dishonest insiders at the carriers selling access to information.

"Data brokers and private investigators are taking advantage of inadequate security through pretexting, the practice of pretending to have authority to access protected records," EPIC's FCC petition states.

Thursday morning, Smith added that confidential phone records may reveal more details than the average consumer assumes.

"The records of whom we choose to call and how long we speak with them can reveal much about our business and personal lives," Smith said. "A careful study of these records may reveal details of our medical or financial life. It may even disclose our physical location. This is a serious concern for undercover police officers and victims of stalking or domestic violence."

EPIC also claims business telephone records are at risk.

"Given the prevalence of phones, both wired and wireless, used for business purposes, these services could be (and most likely are being) used for industrial espionage and other illicit business activities," EPIC states in its petition.

The bill now goes to the full House for a yet unscheduled floor vote. The House Commerce Committee announced Thursday it was tentatively planning a Wednesday vote on its own version of legislation targeting the online sites selling phone records.