Controversy Grows Over Sales of Cell Phone Records

Wireless carriers and the United States government are looking to block individuals from obtaining, exposing and selling mobile phone calling records.

On Wednesday, Senator Charles Schumer (D-New York) introduced legislation aimed at curbing the practice. The Consumer Telephone Records Protection Act of 2006 would create felony criminal penalties for stealing and selling the records of mobile phone, landline, and Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) subscribers.

Both companies and government officials are talking tough about the “troublesome data-brokering practice,” as described by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Commissioner Michael Copps, an activity that is currently legal.

“The seeking of this information is currently not a criminal offense,” said Cingular spokesperson Mark Siegel, whose company is embroiled in a civil lawsuit related to the practice. “We would support legislation that would criminalize the activity,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Legal Moves

Representatives Jay Inslee (D-Washington) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) plan to introduce a second bill at month’s end that would inflict criminal penalties on individuals who pose as account holders in order to gain access to telephone and cell phone records, a practice known as “pretexting.”

Last week Representative Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) requested that the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) begin investigations into Web sites offering to sell mobile phone records.

Wider Privacy Problem

Publication and sales of consumer and corporate customer cell phone records poses a significant risk not only to privacy, but to personal safety, Electronic Privacy Information Center (EPIC) staff attorney Sherwin Siy stated, noting that the availability of such information can aid perpetrators in stalking and other abusive relationships, for example.

“This [data] can be extremely sensitive,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Highlighting the possible risks involved if would-be employers, insurance and health care providers were to obtain such information, Siy stressed that other information, including financial and health data, is being exposed in similar fashion.

“It’s part of a larger problem,” he said. “Cell phone records are not the only thing that brokers are selling.”

Busting the Brokers

Cingular and Verizon have filed lawsuits against so-called data brokers seeking to sell individuals’ cell phone logs, with Cingular’s Siegel pointing out that his company is legally required to protect the information.

“We’re working to make it better and stronger,” he said. “Obviously we’d like it to be 100 percent [secure], but that’s not possible with human beings.”

Tough to Tackle

The proposed laws specifically address perpetators who devise schemes to coax data out of carriers’ employees or steal it by logging into users’ online accounts. Such deceptive ploys by data brokers and their associates are often enough to get gullible customers and unscrupulous or naive corporate insiders to provide the information, said Roger Entner, Ovum vice president of wireless telecoms.

This “makes it very challenging,” for the carriers, he said. “A lot of people don’t even have their bill itemized, and a crook can just get at it,” he said.

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