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FCC orders wireless carriers to protect customers' call info

'Shield that precious data from prying eyes – but not the NSA'

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The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has issued new rules that clarify how wireless telecom providers should protect their customers' call records and other information.

"This sensitive information can include phone numbers that a customer has called and received calls from, the durations of calls, and the phone's location at the beginning and end of each call," explains the FCC's "unofficial announcement" of the Declaratory Ruling. This data acquired by telecoms is known in the biz as "customer proprietary network information", or CPNI.

Don't think for a nanosecond, however, that the FCC's ruling will protect CPNI from being provided to such government agencies as the NSA – carriers will still have to respond to such requests when legally ordered to do so.

But the Declaratory Ruling does, indeed, update the policies outlined in Section 222 of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended in 1996, that require carriers to take "reasonable precautions" to protect CPNI. It also makes it clear that there is no "mobile exception" to CPNI protection – when Section 222 says information should be protected, it doesn't matter whether that information is collected over a landline or a wireless connection.

"Specifically," wrote Acting Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn in an accompanying statement, "the Declaratory Ruling makes clear that when mobile carriers use their control of customers' devices to collect information about customers' use of the network, including using preinstalled apps, and the carrier or its designee has access to or control over the information, carriers are required to protect that information in the same way they are required to protect CPNI on the network."

Carriers are not responsible, however, to ensure that any information acquired by third-party apps is protected, nor any information that may be acquired by the handset makers or operating system developers. The ruling is aimed only at the carriers and their preinstalled apps.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, in her statement, wrote that the average consumer may have difficulty understanding the distinctions between those different types of information-gathering. "Consumers should not have to be network engineers to understand who is collecting their data," she wrote, "and they should not have to be lawyers to determine if their information is protected."

Rosenworcel also expressed concerns about the increasing amount of data that is being acquired and stored by third-party apps, and said that the FCC should address those concerns in future deliberations.

"Dial a call, write an e-mail, make a purchase, post an online update to a social network, read a news site, store your family photographs in the cloud, and you should assume that service providers, advertising networks, and companies specializing in analytics have access to your personal information. Lots of it – and for a long time," she wrote.

"Our digital footprints are hardly in sand," Rosenworcel wrote; "they are effectively in wet cement.

She believes that the FCC, working with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), should take the lead in clarifying rules and protecting customer information. "I hope the agency can be proactive and help consumers better understand the different ways their personal data may be collected on a mobile phones, what rules apply, and how they can protect themselves," she wrote.

Commissioner Ajit Pai takes a more hands-off approach. "I believe the Commission should welcome the development of private-sector solutions to some of the challenges facing the industry," he wrote. ®

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