MICHELLE NORRIS, host:
Pressure is mounting on federal regulators to protect the privacy of cell phone records. Consumers have been outraged to learn that calling records for many cell phones can be bought easily online. This week, federal regulators said they're investigating the practice, and the first federal ban on the sale of these records was introduced in the Senate today.
But, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports, there's still no agreement on exactly who's supposed to solve the problem.
LARRY ABRAMSON reporting:
For months, Chris Hoofnagle of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, has been waving a red flag, asking why its so easy to go online and buy records of people's cell phone calls.
Mr. CHRIS HOOFNAGLE (Senior Counsel, Electronic Privacy Information Center): Currently, all one needs to get a cell phone record is a billing address and one other piece of information, such as the date of birth of the account holder. And that's a pretty low bar to gain access to account records.
ABRAMSON: They're easy to buy because of a flim-flam known as pre-texting. A con-man gathers some personal information, maybe a social security number, impersonates the customer, and asks for the records. Chris Hoofnagle says its amazing how often this simple scam works.
Mr. HOOFNAGLE: And they do this to many different companies. There's a lot of evidence showing that they do it to internet service providers, to dating websites and to all sorts of other entities that have your data.
ABRAMSON: When media reports exposed widespread trading in financial information a few years back, Congress outlawed the practice. But cell phone records and other data remain largely unprotected. The Electronic Privacy Information Center says the cell phone companies are partly to blame. By law, they are supposed to guard the privacy of customer records. This week, the Federal Communications Commission announced it is investigating.
Commissioner Jonathan Adelstein says this is essentially a security problem that the phone companies can fix.
Mr. JONATHAN ADELSTEIN (FCC Commissioner): The phone companies are supposed to have firewalls in place but this data is blazing like a wildfire all over the internet. We need to make sure that those firewalls are in place and working.
ABRAMSON: Cell phone companies protest, they are not to blame. Mark Siegel of Cingular Wireless says his company is a victim, deceived by pre-texters.
Mr. MARK SIEGEL (Executive Director Media Relations, Cingular Wireless): And we already have stringent safeguards in place, both technical, which I'm obviously not going to talk about for security reasons, and human, in the form of the training of our people to be alert when someone is trying to coax information out of them.
ABRAMSON: Cingular and Verizon have already sued companies like locatecell.com, which offer cell phone records and countless other information services. But attorney, Larry Slade, says these lawsuits won't do much good.
Mr. LARRY SLADE (Attorney, Intelligent E-Commerce): Because these are usually small companies, they don't have any infrastructure, so they'll just shut down and either open up under another name or if they shut down, there's hundreds of other companies jumping online everyday.
ABRAMSON: Slade represents Intelligent E-Commerce, owner of bestpeoplesearch.com, one of the sites that sold cell phone records until this week. Slade says the company stopped because of the controversy caused by recent press coverage. But Slade insists the practice is not illegal, and private investigators are worried that the zeal to attack this problem will cut off legitimate access. California based investigator, Robert Townsend, says regulation should allow access with a court order so investigators can find runaway kids or deadbeat parents.
Mr. ROBERT TOWNSEND (Investigator): As long as the records are not totally cut off for the appropriate and necessary investigation that's required to keep our American Judicial system humming along.
ABRAMSON: A bill, introduced by Illinois Senator, Dick Durbin, allows access by law enforcement, but not necessarily by private investigators. The time it may take to hammer out legislation could mean the FCC or the Federal Trade Commission will get to crack the first case. Both agencies say they have jurisdiction.
In the meantime, consumers can protect their records by using a good, strong password and changing it regularly. They can also ask providers not to include call details on their bill, just a summary of minutes and charges.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.