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Senate Passes Phone Data Confidentiality Bill

A U.S. Senate panel pushed out legislation yesterday that makes it illegal to acquire, use or sell a person's confidential phone records without affirmative written consent.

Applying to wireline, wireless and Voice over IP &bspcarriers, the bill also bars unscrupulous companies and individuals from fraudulently obtaining consumers' private phone records through a deceptive practice known as "pretexting." The term refers to unauthorized persons using false pretenses to acquire private phone records.

Under the Protecting Consumer Phone Records Act, a carrier must notify a customer if someone without authorization gains access to their phone records. It also charges the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with concurrent enforcement.

As approved by the Senate Commerce Committee, S. 2389 directs the FCC to ensure that its phone record regulations are similar in scope and structure to FTC regulations protecting financial information under the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

The bill also streamlines the two-step FCC process for fining phone record theft by non-carriers, such as data brokers and Web sites selling the information.

Currently, this process can tip-off parties that are not regulated by the FCC that they are under investigation because the FCC must issue a notice before it can move to an enforcement action.

The penalty for each violation is $30,000 with a cap of $3 million for any continuing violation.

"Confidential phone records are easily being sold on Web sites for very small fees. It is private property and a privacy violation that, in the wrong hands, can threaten a person's safety," Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) said in a statement.

Bailey added: "Making it illegal to buy and sell this personal information will give consumers the protection they deserve and expect. Americans' phone records should be private and protected like their medical records."

Approved on a voice vote, the bill now moves to the Senate floor. The Senate action follows similar House legislation, also awaiting a full floor vote, aimed at the same issue.

"Who you call, when, and how long you talk is like a diary of your private life. The committee recognized consumers' wishes to keep their phone records private and keep their cell phone number unlisted, but we are urging stronger privacy safeguards be added on the floor of the Senate," Magda Herrera, policy advocate for Consumers Union, said in a statement.

Herrera also praised two amendments added to the bill by Senators Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Pryor's amendment authorizes civil suits by individuals whose phone records have been unlawfully acquired, sold, or used. The Boxer amendment allows consumers to decide whether their wireless numbers are listed in any future cell phone directories.

"We are grateful the committee adopted two pro-consumer amendments from Senators Pyror and Boxer. Unfortunately, the bill remains problematic because it fails to require phone companies to put in place strict privacy safeguards regarding customer records," Herrera said. "It also undercuts what the states are doing and might do in the future to protect their residents."