FCC Fines Prompt AT&T to “Zealously Guard” Customers’ Personal Information

On April 8, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) announced its largest ever data security settlement requiring AT&T to pay $25 million to resolve an investigation into data security breaches at its call centers in the Philippines, Mexico, and Colombia. AT&T’s privacy violations involved the unauthorized disclosure of the names, full or partial Social Security Numbers, and other protected customer proprietary network information (“CPNI”) of nearly 280,000 U.S. customers.

The initial focus of the FCC’s investigation was a 168-day long breach beginning in November 2013 at AT&T’s call center in Mexico where thousands of customer accounts were accessed and sold without authorization. The buyers, who were likely trafficking stolen cell phones, submitted nearly 291,000 handset unlock requests to AT&T’s Mexico call center. Similar breaches occurred in Columbia and the Philippines, where a combined total of approximately 211,000 customer accounts were accessed without authorization.

In response, the FCC brought charges of violations of Sections 222 and 201(b) of the Communications Act (the “Act”) against AT&T for failure to timely report the breaches. Section 222 of the Act requires companies like AT&T to take every reasonable precaution to protect customer data, including CPNI, and to take reasonable measures to discover and report attempts to access CPNI, including notifying law enforcement “as soon as practicable, in no event later than seven (7) business days, after reasonable determination of the breach.” Section 201(b) of the Act prohibits unjust and unreasonable practices.

4-28AT&T notified law enforcement of the Mexico call center breach on May 20, 2014, over a month after it began its internal investigation, and several months after the actual breach. In an effort to mitigate the breach, AT&T notified victims of the breach and the California Attorney General, terminated its relationship with the Mexico call center, mandated the uniform use of partial social security numbers in all call centers, and developed new customer account monitoring and phone access/unlock policies.

The FCC settlement also mandates the implementation of a permanent, strict compliance plan that requires AT&T to:

  1. designate a senior compliance manager who is a certified privacy professional;
  2. complete a privacy risk assessment reasonably designed to identify internal risks of unauthorized access, use, or disclosure of personal information and CPNI;
  3. implement an information security program reasonably designed to protect CPNI and personal information from unauthorized access, use, or disclosure;
  4. prepare a compliance manual to be distributed to all covered employees and vendors; and
  5. regularly train employees on its privacy policies and applicable privacy legal authorities.

AT&T is required to report any noncompliance to the FCC and must file regular compliance reports for the next three years.

The FCC has taken the position that phone companies are expected to “zealously guard” their customers’ personal information and that the FCC “will exercise its full authority against companies that fail to safeguard the personal information of their customers.” This position tracks the trend of active enforcement of consumer data security breaches over the past year. To that end, companies in possession of CPNI and other protected customer information should heed the Agreement and “look to [it] as guidance” for protecting customer information and avoiding liability under Sections 222 and 201(b) of the Act.

We expect that other telephone companies/carriers will continue to evolve and implement heightened security measures in response to this settlement, and the FCC will surely investigate those companies who are not in compliance.

Image courtesy of Flickr by Michael Weinberg

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