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Verizon, T-Mobile, Sprint, and AT&T could be facing big fines for selling your location data

The potential fines follow an FCC probe into the carriers and the practice of selling location data.

Two people hold smartphones that have maps on their screens.
Phone carriers can track customers’ real-time locations using a variety of methods, even if location services are turned off.
Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images
Sara Morrison is a senior Vox reporter who has covered data privacy, antitrust, and Big Tech’s power over us all for the site since 2019.
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Your mobile phone company might be on the hook for fines from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for selling your real-time location data.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FCC wants AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon to pay hundreds of millions in fines. (The report did not specify an exact amount.) The agency has already told the companies it will issue notices of liability asking for the fines. The notices are not final settlements, and the companies they’re issued to can (and likely will) fight them.

The notices appear to be the result of an FCC probe into how telecom companies sell real-time location information to data brokers. Cellphones are constantly pinging off towers, effectively giving carriers a real-time map of their customers’ whereabouts throughout the day. The New York Times and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) revealed in May 2018 that the carriers were selling this information to companies that used it to track people without their knowledge or consent. Though the four carriers said they would stop this practice, a Vice report six months later showed that AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were still doing it. In May 2019, all four carriers were hit with a class action lawsuit for selling the data.

Wyden, a vocal advocate of digital privacy, is promoting legislation to hold companies and their executives accountable for such violations. The senator was not thrilled with the FCC’s response, saying that companies will simply see the “comically inadequate” fines as “the cost of doing business.”

“It seems clear that Chairman [Ajit] Pai has failed to protect American consumers at every stage of the game,” Wyden said in a statement provided to Recode. “This issue only came to light after my office and dedicated journalists discovered how wireless companies shared Americans’ locations willy-nilly. He only investigated after public pressure mounted.”

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