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FCC Must Protect Personal Data of Low-Income Americans in Lifeline Program

October 13, 2015 , , ,

In August, CTIA – The Wireless Association, filed a Petition for Partial Reconsideration with the Federal Communications Commission challenging the Commission’s authority to protect the personal information of subscribers to the federal Lifeline program. If CTIA’s petition is granted, millions of low-income Americans could be at risk of identity theft and predatory marketing, just by virtue of participating in a federal program.

Currently, carriers collect a wide variety of personal information from consumers to determine their eligibility for FCC’s Lifeline program. CTIA argues that the Commission cannot require those carriers to properly safeguard this sensitive consumer data. This position risks converting privacy from a right for all to a privilege for those who can afford it. Last week, Public Knowledge and 11 other public interest groups filed an Opposition to CTIA’s Petition for Reconsideration.

Lifeline is designed to assist an already vulnerable population. The program began in 1985 during President Ronald Reagan’s Administration and has been continually updated and modified since then. For example, in 2005, President George W. Bush expanded the program to include subsidies for wireless phones in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The purpose of the program was to ensure that those below 135% of the federal poverty line have access to important means of telecommunication. Subscribers use the service to connect with family and friends, contact their children’s school, arrange childcare, and call for help in an emergency.

Lifeline applicants are required to share personally identifiable information including their name, address, date of birth, full or partial social security number, and driver’s license number. Not only do carriers collect information highly prized by identity thieves, they also collect sensitive information like household income and participation in other non-Lifeline public assistance programs. CTIA’s position is that participants in the Lifeline program are entitled to no protection from the Commission when it comes to their extremely sensitive information handled by carriers.

CTIA’s stance—that none of this uniquely sensitive information is entitled to privacy protection—would force low-income families to choose between receiving much needed government assistance and ensuring that their personal information is secure. When essential services are on the line, for many there is no choice at all. The fact is that many low-income Americans would be forced to give up their privacy to participate in this government program.

The threat posed by not requiring carriers to safeguard information acquired during the eligibility process has already manifested in a breach of Lifeline subscriber’s information. Just this year, TerraCom, Inc. (TerraCom) and YourTel America, Inc. (YourTel) were fined by the Commission after a data breach occurred, resulting in hackers gaining access to the names, addresses, dates of birth, full or partial Social Security numbers, and driver’s licenses of the companies’ Lifeline subscribers. According to the Commission’s Order, “the Companies’ vendor stored the proprietary information of more than 300,000 customers in clear, readable text on servers that were accessible over the Internet, and the data was not password protected or encrypted.” Clearly, there is a real risk to Lifeline subscribers if the Commission does not protect their information.

Lifeline subscribers deserve to have their information protected as much as other consumers. Significantly less privacy protections is not an acceptable price to pay for participation in a government program. Public Knowledge is fighting to keep privacy a right for all, not a privilege for some.

 

Image credit: Wikimedia commons users Hugh D'Andrade