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House panel moves to shield phone records

Moving to block vendors who offer to obtain and sell consumers' telephone records, a House panel Wednesday passed legislation to bar the practice and boost security measures.
/ Source: Reuters

Moving to block vendors who offer to obtain and sell consumers' telephone records, a House panel Wednesday passed legislation to bar the practice and boost security measures.

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee unanimously approved a bill that forbids the sale of telephone records as well as bars the emerging practice of impersonating subscribers to obtain their records and selling them on the Internet.

The bill also mandates tougher Federal Communications Commission security rules for phone companies that maintain such records, as well as higher fines for phone companies that fail to adhere to the standards.

"The problem is that these telephone calling records, which detail some of the most intimate and sensitive aspects of our lives, are easily available to anyone with an Internet connection, a credit card, and $100 to spend," said Rep. Joe Barton, the committee chairman and a Texas Republican.

The panel's action follows a wave of concerns about Web sites that offer to get consumers' phone records. Already investigations are under way by the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission and states' attorneys general.

Many Internet sites that had offered to get such information have already stopped, the FTC has said.

Telecom industry worries it goes too far
The measure would also require telephone carriers to get a customer's permission before sharing some specific call information with others for activities like marketing.

The House panel also unanimously adopted an amendment that would bar telephone carriers from disclosing wireless telephone numbers without the consent of customers, which would make it difficult for the creation of a wireless telephone directory.

Telephone and wireless organizations praised parts of the measure, but were worried it goes too far.

“We are still very concerned that other provisions in this bill would impose additional costs on consumers without a commensurate benefit,” said Allison Remsen of the U.S. Telecom Association.

“We have serious concerns about how far this bill goes into issues completely unrelated to the illicit behavior Congress is attempting to stop,” said Joe Farren of CTIA, which represents major wireless carriers.

The FCC is weighing whether it should require tighter security controls on telephone carriers after a privacy group last year petitioned the agency to take action. CTIA has urged the FCC to avoid imposing new security rules.

Under the measure the committee passed, a company that violates the FCC’s rules could be fined up to $300,000 per violation and up to a maximum of $3 million for multiple incidents. The current fine is up to $100,000 per violation  with a $1 million maximum.

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee approved a bill that would impose criminal penalties of up to 20 years in prison for obtaining or attempting to get telephone records under false pretenses.

The Senate Commerce Committee plans to consider on March 16 its own legislation, and it would subject companies that fail to protect subscriber records with a $30,000 penalty per violation. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed its own measure last week.

Any differences between the two chambers would have to be resolved before it could become law.