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FCC Seeks Comments about Privacy and Security of Information on Mobile Communication Devices

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is seeking for public comment on the privacy and security of personal information on mobile devices.

By Alice Cheng

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently released a request for public comment on the privacy and security of personal information on mobile devices. The Commission, which regulates interstate and international radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable communications, had solicited public input on this subject five years ago, but acknowledges the vast changes in technologies and business practices since then.

Section 222 of the Communications Act of 1934 addresses customer privacy, and establishes that all telecommunications carriers have the duty, with limited exceptions, to protect the confidentiality of proprietary information of and relating to customers. All carriers must also protect “customer proprietary network information” (CPNI), such as time, date, and duration of a call, which the carrier receives and obtains.  They may use, disclose, and allow access of such information only in limited circumstances.

The FCC enforces these obligations, and is seeking comments to better understand the practices of mobile wireless service providers, and the types of customer information that is stored on mobile devices.

This request for public comment appears to come in light of the Carrier IQ controversy of late 2011. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) brought legal action against analytics company Carrier IQ after it was discovered that the software, installed on over 140 million mobile devices, was capable of detailed logging of user keystrokes, recording of calls, storing text messages, tracking location, and more. The detailed tracking was intended to provide phone usage information that would be helpful to improve device performance. However, the widespread collection and difficulty in opting out attracted nationwide attention and a slew of lawsuits.

In addition to the request for public comments, the FCC has also recently released a report on location-based services (LBS), focusing on “mobile services that combine information about a user’s physical location with online connectivity.” While the report acknowledges the benefits of these services (ease of transacting business, for social networking purposes, etc.), they also address concerns of creating highly accurate and personal user profiles through LBS data—specifically, “how, when and by whom this information can and should be used.”

Congress has displayed a growing interest in privacy as well—several privacy and information security-related bills have been introduced and hearings on the issues have been held.

Five years after their initial inquiry into the matter, the FCC hopes to obtain an updated understanding of these mobile information security and privacy issues. Comments are due by July 13, and reply comments are due by July 30.