Your World, Delivered by Phone Companies to Marketers

Is your phone tracking you?  And would you know if it was?  Over 140 million customers of Sprint, AT&T and other phone companies didn’t know they were being tracked through their phones by Carrier IQ software that phone companies had embedded in many mobile devices.  This is just one of many signs that the times they are a-changing, and the California Public Utilities Commission needs to change with them. 


Back in 1986, phones didn’t track your location, pay your bills or find you restaurants.  But many rules governing phone privacy in California go back that far, and are wholly inadequate to protect modern consumers’ constitutional right to privacy.  That’s why TURN, CFC, the Consumer Federation of California, and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse are demanding an update.  As the leading consumer groups in the state, we have petitioned the CPUC for a rulemaking on phone customer privacy.  With smart phone technology and data mining both progressing rapidly, the need is urgent.


Today, mobile carriers as well as application developers can collect, store, and use a customer’s personal information, regardless of their knowledge or consent. The Carrier IQ software runs automatically and has the ability to record location, phone numbers called, application downloads, and when text messages are sent or received.


In fact, there seems to be no limit to what can be learned about us from our phones- where we go what we do, who we call, what we eat, how we travel. 


Commissioner Catherine Sandoval, a law professor and telecom expert, wants the CPUC to catch up with the times.  She has issued a proposed decision approving our petition that is scheduled for a vote by the full Commission at its December 5 meeting.  If the rulemaking goes forward, consumer representatives will be able to participate in shaping new rules that address potential gaps due to new technologies.


Ms. Sandoval’s proposal notes that Carrier IQ is not the only company tracking phone consumers. When a Verizon Wireless customer navigates to a website on her smartphone, information about that website, as well as the customer’s location and demographic background maybe sold to businesses including malls, stadiums and billboard owners. 


Sandoval rejected allegations by the phone companies that the existing, outdated rules – plus their own, “voluntary” procedures, are adequate. 


“Recent changes to telecommunications capabilities, have created new forms of personal information and new capacities for tracking that information,” Sandoval wrote.   “Given the many changes to the telecommunications industry and communications technologies since current CPNI [Customer Proprietary Network Information] laws and regulations were put into place, an examination of telecommunications providers’ privacy practices and a potential update to applicable privacy standards and rules is reasonable and consistent with the Commission’s legal responsibilities…”


Unfortunately, Sandoval’s colleague, Commissioner Mark Ferron, has also issued a proposal, one that would not allow the rulemaking to go forward.  TURN’s view is that the Commission should be proactive in protecting customers’ privacy, and that changes in the rules are already overdue.  Waiting, as Commissioner Ferron proposes, only postpones the inevitable.

by Mindy Spatt, TURN Communications Director