RealTime IT News

Second Phone Data Privacy Bill Approved

WASHINGTON -- Targeting both telephone data brokers and telecoms, a House panel today approved legislation that bans the sale, lease or rental of confidential telephone records.

The bill also strengthens the ability of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to pursue the thriving online black-market sale of phone data.

It is now an express violation of the FTC Act for a person to use false pretenses to obtain or sell confidential phone data, a practice widely known as pretexting.

In addition, the legislation mandates that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) write stricter regulations for telecoms to protect the confidential phone data of their customers. Violations of the rules could draw as high as a $300,000 fine.

"Living in the information age can be a boon to our prosperity and a bane to our privacy, but nothing says we have to take the bad along with the good," House Commerce Committee Chairman Joe Barton (R-Texas) said.

"Americans are rightfully concerned that identity thieves, stalkers and unscrupulous data brokers can access ... information they believed was kept private by their telephone company."

The House Commerce bill also extends the obligations of telephone carriers to protect phone data to Voice over IP providers.

"Under the guise of deregulation, the [FCC] decided not to apply current telephone record privacy protections to VoIP services," Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said. "This FCC-created loophole must be closed or else we will no doubt be back here soon with another bill."

Dingell, the senior Democrat on the committee, added, "Consumer private telephone calling information is no less sensitive if a person makes a call using VoIP than using a traditional telephone."

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved the Law Enforcement and Phone Privacy Act of 2006, criminalizing the fraudulent sale or solicitation of confidential phone records. The bill imposes prison terms up to 20 years for pretexting for telephone records.

The Judiciary bill also imposes jail terms for Web sites selling or transferring phone records with consumers' express consent. Individuals buying the records would also face jail time.

Barton said Wednesday the two bills are likely to be combined into one legislative package for a full House floor vote. Barton predicted the House would move quickly to approve the legislation.

"Everyone's pretty concerned about what has happened and there's a lot of momentum going [for the two bills]," he said. "We hope to get it to the president by the spring."

Under the Telecommunications Act of 1996, telephone carriers are obligated to protect the Customer Proprietary Network Information (CPNI) of consumers, but last summer the privacy watchdog Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) complained to the FCC that confidential phone records are readily available for sale on the Internet.

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 that evidence exists of dishonest insiders at the carriers selling access to information.

"There are questions of whether the purveyors of consumers are skirting current law to hock their wares. It is time for Congress to end all ambiguity in the law and make it clear that the pretexting for and the selling of phone records are illegal, period," Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said shortly before the unanimous voice vote.

"It is also time for phone companies to do a better job of protecting their customers' call records in the first place."

Similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate. Any differences between the two chambers' bills would have to be reconciled before going to the White House.