Lawyer warned FCC of Securus phone-tracking risks 10 months ago

Legal concerns over platform were floated back in July

Some ten months before Sen. Ron Wyden would request the FCC examine legal concerns over the service, a US lawyer had alerted the agency to potential problems with the Securus THREADS database.

Law360 found that Lee Petro, a Washington DC-based attorney at Drinker, Biddle, and Reath LLP, noted in a July 25, 2017 filing (PDF) to the US comms watchdog that THREADS, a monitoring tool Securus offered to US prison systems to help track inmate calling activity, was possibly violating US law.

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"To the extent that the THREADS database and Location-Based Service offering provides the name and billing address for more than 600,000 non-incarcerated people, access to 100 million calling records and the location data (both real-time and historical) of the recipients of ICS calls, there are serious concerns that Securus is in violation of Section 222 of the Act," Petro noted at the time.

Petro told The Register he came upon details of the platform as part of his work on rulemaking for caps on the rates inmates pay for calls. While researching proposals and contract submissions, he found that the THREADS database was being advertised as a location-tracking service.

"As the companies started to implement more investigative services, details on the location-based tracking and the THREADS database began to be incorporated into the proposals," Petro explained.

Designed to let prison administrators search out suspicious call patterns between inmates and people on nearby phones, THREADS also seemed to be able to extend to other private devices. This potentially allows the system to be used by prison staff or other law enforcement officials to keep tabs on private citizens without any sort of warrant or court order.

Time to call in the regulators

The lawyer brought his concerns to the FCC as part of an objection to a pending transaction involving Securus.

"The issue was raised in connection with the 2017 sale of Securus from ABRY Partners to Platinum Equity (both are private equity funds)," Petro explained.

"We had opposed the transaction, and in the course of the filings, Securus indicated that it would provide the location-based service and THREADS as an enhanced offering."

While the FCC acknowledged the concerns, Petro said that, in the context of the transaction, it decided not to look into the matter and, when the deal closed in October of last year, so did the objection.

It was only months later, when the Securus was brought into the limelight over revelations the service was in fact being illegally used to track private individuals, that the FCC would again be prodded to take action.

Petro is hopeful that this revived effort to get the FCC scrutinizing Securus will prove more successful.

"Now that Senator Wyden has raised the issue, there is a chance that the FCC will review this issue," Petro said.

"Recent press reports also indicate that the matter has been referred to the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau, which is a positive step in resolving the concerns."

The FCC acknowledged its Enforcement Bureau was looking into the matter, but had no further comment. ®

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