Ajit Pai's Silence on Phone Tracking Abuse Is Further Eroding Faith in His Competence

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Washington, June 27, 2019 | comments
Dell Cameron

The Federal Communication Commission’s investigation into the unauthorized sale of Americans’ location data is now in its second year and still, no one outside of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s office knows a thing about it. On Capitol Hill, faith in his ability to properly handle these apparent violations has reached an all-time low.

On Wednesday, Congresswoman Lori Trahan attached a small amendment to an appropriations bill simply to highlight Pai’s inaction, on what many lawmakers believe is a serious public safety concern. Under a section covering FCC salaries and expenses, she decreased and then increased the agency’s budget by $1 — a small demonstration that gave her a cause to take to the House floor yesterday and call out Pai’s “lack of enforcement and transparency.”

“Location data has been sold through a supply chain with little oversight, often leading to this information ending up in the hands of bad actors,” she said. “For just a few dollars, stalkers and predatory abusers can buy geolocation information to prey on unsuspecting victims—a reality that should set off alarm bells nationwide.”

“Every day that the FCC delays reporting their findings from this investigation puts consumers’ personal security at greater risk,” she added.

As Trahan spoke, Motherboard broke another major story in the location-data scandal, linking the apparently unauthorized use of location data to a crime scene an hour east of Dallas, Texas, where two bounty hunters illegally posing as law enforcement officials had exchanged fire with a suspect on the run, resulting in the deaths of all three.

At the same time, two Democratic congresswomen, Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Gwen Moore of Wisconsin, signed a letter to Pai voicing their concerns over the apparent ease with which real-time location data can be illegally obtained.
“Abusers and stalkers often exploit technology to gain access to their victims’ location through GPS tracking and other cell phone apps, forcing victims to get new phones or wipe their current ones when they are trying to leave these dangerous situations,” they said.

The lawmakers urged Pai to “take this matter seriously” and protect location data “to the fullest extent of the law,” stating that domestic violence victims and victims of sex trafficking are among those at greatest risk.

Pai’s office has not responded to multiple requests for comment.

Democratic lawmakers charged with overseeing the FCC’s work believe more and more each day that the investigation itself is being mishandled; and their aides, the federal employees responsible for crafting much of the nation’s laws around communications and privacy are growing increasingly suspicious of Pai, whom many have accused of carrying water for the very mega-corporations directly tied to this mess.

Within his own agency, Democratic officials have privately, and on some occasions openly, accused Pai of intentionally mishandling the investigation—as evidenced mainly by his ongoing refusal to share documentation that would shed light on its progress. Other officials have pointed to an attempt in February to unload the investigation onto a new Democratic commissioner whose office was still void of furniture.

FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks, a former Justice Department attorney, who also served as an assistant chief in the commission’s enforcement bureau, appeared to indicate during an oversight hearing this May that Pai’s oversight of the investigation—as of at least this February—had been deficient.

“What I heard at that briefing did not give me confidence,” he said, “that the case was moving quickly enough.”

Multiple sources at the agency, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about the matter, have said they believe Pai’s intent was to use Starks as a fall guy; saddling him with a faulty case in an effort to at least alleviate Pai of the blame. During the May hearing, Pai was seen as trying to throw Starks under the bus for not accepting the offer, which Democratic officials at the agency told Gizmodo was bizarre, if not inappropriate, to start.

On Wednesday, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel openly criticized the chairman for remaining silent about the scandal for more than a year while virtually anyone with a cellphone could be at risk. “[F]or too long the FCC has been silent about this security mess. The agency hasn’t said anything about what is going on and how any of us with a mobile phone might be at risk. That’s unacceptable,” she said.

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