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When your private telephone records fall into the wrong hands

The following letter was submitted today to the Senate Committee on
Commerce, Science and Transportation about their efforts to investigate and take legislative action on the issue of unlawful access to private telephone records.

February 8, 2006
Dear Chairman Stevens and Co-Chair Inouye:
Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports®, thanks you for your leadership on the serious problem of unlawful access to private telephone records. We urge you to enact tough new legislation to prohibit the release, acquisition, and sale of private calling records and to require strong new carrier safeguards to prevent unscrupulous parties from accessing that information.
Americans are rightfully concerned that stalkers, identity thieves, and data-brokers can access information they believed was kept private and secure by their telephone company. Despite the lack of data on the scope of the problem, it is clear that all consumers face increased risk of these privacy violations since the explosive growth of online data-brokering companies.
Greater awareness that consumers’ calling records are easily and cheaply obtainable has heightened attention to the weaknesses of Section 222 of the 1934 Communications Act in protecting consumer proprietary network information and Section 5 of the FTC Act, which prohibits unfair and deceptive trade practices. Among other weaknesses, Section 5 does not explicitly prohibit pretexting to obtain telephone records and lacks important enforcement provisions; Section 222 provides for an opt-out, rather than opt-in, standard for the sale or release of consumers’ private network information to companies affiliated with the carrier or for marketing purposes. Given the growth in the market for the sale of private phone records, it is clear that regulations promulgated under Section 222 have failed to prevent unscrupulous parties from accessing private phone
A meaningful solution to the now well-publicized problem of pretexting and other unscrupulous or illegal means of obtaining third-party private phone records requires a comprehensive approach that includes an explicit prohibition on pretexting and the sale of wireline, wireless and VoIP phone records; strong enforcement powers for FTC and the Federal Communications Commission, including tough criminal and civil penalties for unlawfully obtaining or selling phone records and failing to safeguard customers records; and mandatory consumer notice when calling records have been
requested or provided to any party. In addition, given the growth of online companies that sell private calling records, it is clear that phone companies are not doing enough under Section 222 to protect consumers’information with which they are entrusted. A true solution requires new, strengthened mandatory carrier obligations to implement more stringent internal safeguards to prevent release of private records, with tough penalties for noncompliance. Finally, it is critical that any new federal safeguards not preempt more stringent state laws and regulations protecting consumers’ calling records.
We applaud your swift action and thank you for your leadership to protect consumers. We look forward to working with you toward effective, enforceable consumer privacy legislation.
Jeannine Kenney
Senior Policy Analyst
cc: Members, Commerce, Science and Transportation Committe