FCC to Vote on Extending Telephone Privacy Rules to Mobile Devices

Wireless companies question commission's authority to act

As consumers abandon their landlines for mobile phones, the Federal Communications Commission is looking to pass a rule that will make sure the current privacy rules for telephones also apply to the portable devices.

Aimed at strengthening consumer privacy on cellphones, the ruling would require mobile carriers to safeguard personal information such as the numbers called, the duration and time calls were made, as well as their location.

The FCC's three commissioners will vote on the declaratory ruling at its monthly meeting on June 27.

"Millions of wireless consumers must have confidence that personal information about calls will remain secure even if that information is stored on a mobile device," said acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn.

The FCC decided to review its privacy rules in 2011 when policymakers discovered that carriers were using Carrier IQ's real-time diagnostic software that tracked how consumers were using their phones. Carrier IQ insisted that it did not track personal information or that consumer privacy was violated. Not buying Carrier IQ's assertions, regulators and lawmakers reacted with alarm. 

Worried that mandatory rules could hamstring diagnostic tools used to improve customer service, wireless companies have pushed for voluntary rules. They also question whether the FCC even has the authority to extend its current rules for telephone carriers (known as the Customer Proprietary Network Information or CPNI rules) to mobile devices.

"The commission lacks statutory authority to regulate carriers' use of tools to diagnose and troubleshoot network problems in order to improve the provision of service to subscribers," the CTIA – The Wireless Association said last year in a filing to the FCC.