FCC Clears Law Enforcement to Unblock Caller ID for Threat Calls

The FCC today unanimously approved an order (Common Carrier docket 91-281) to enable law enforcement and private security personnel to obtain the calling party number (CPN) on calls sent with caller ID blocking so that they can investigate threatening calls. “This is a narrow, tailored exemption of privacy protections under the commission’s current rules, which recognize a caller may have a legitimate interest in blocking caller ID,” Nellie Foosaner, attorney advisor for the Consumer Policy Division of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, said during an open commission meeting.

A threatening call is any call that “conveys an emergency involving danger of death or physical injury to any person requiring disclosure of information without delay related to the emergency,” she said.

To protect against use by “bad actors,” the rule requires that caller ID unblocking requests be made by law enforcement on behalf of the threatened party, Ms. Foosaner said. The order also limits the distribution of the caller ID information obtained to the investigating law enforcement and security personnel, she said.

The order, stemming from an NPRM the FCC adopted in June (TR Daily, June 22), changes FCC rules prohibiting terminating carriers from providing the called party with the number from which an interstate call originated if the caller has invoked caller ID blocking for the call or the line.

The NPRM left in place a temporary emergency waiver granted earlier this year to Jewish community centers (JCCs) after a flurry of threatening calls. But that waiver is no longer in place with the adoption of the broader rules, Foosaner said.

The order, the FCC said, means organization will not have to seek waivers on a case-by-case basis to obtain caller ID information.

The commission said it “continues to take seriously the privacy of law-abiding consumers,” and limited access to caller ID information to law enforcement personnel and others in charge of protecting the safety and security of parties that have received threats.

In addition, the FCC said, the order provides an exemption to “non-public” emergency services, such as private ambulance services, to obtain blocked caller ID information.

Though the order had not yet been released, the NPRM called for requiring that (1) “the CPN on incoming restricted calls may not be passed on to the line called; (2) any system used to record CPN must be operated in a secure way, limiting access to designated telecommunications and security personnel; (3) telecommunications and security personnel may access restricted CPN data only when investigating phone calls of a threatening and serious nature, and shall document that access as part of the investigative report; (4) transmission of restricted CPN information to and from law enforcement agencies and security personnel must occur only through secure communications; (5) CPN information must be destroyed in a secure manner after a reasonable retention period; and (6) any violation of these conditions must be reported promptly to the Commission.”

The “rash” of threatening calls to Jewish community centers “highlighted a disturbing trend” the FCC needed to respond to, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said during the meeting.

Accessing caller ID information “could save lives and help apprehend those making such calls. Moreover, this measure is justified because callers who make threats should have no legitimate expectation of privacy that their caller ID information will remain secret,” Mr. Pai said.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also praised the bi-partisan agreement. Commissioner Clyburn said she would like to think the rule, had caller ID been available in the past, “would have made a difference” in helping law enforcement find perpetrators of threatening phone calls, such as calls made to the homes of students in 1957 who integrated Central high School in Little Rock, Ark.

“Unfortunately, even with advancements in technology, law enforcement personnel continue to face challenges with identifying and thwarting threatening calls,” she said. “This was evidenced earlier this year by the telephoned bomb threats made against [JCCs] across the country.”

FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr said he was “grateful” the FCC moved forward with the order and cited a “significant increase” in bomb threats being called in to schools, religious institutions, and community centers as the reason the rule change is necessary.

“In some cases, the perpetrators have been able to remain anonymous by taking advantage of an FCC rule that allows callers to block their caller ID information,” he said. “Today, we address this problem by adopting an exemption for threatening calls from our caller ID rules.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said during the meeting the order resolves his concerns the FCC “strike an appropriate balance between providing information to law enforcement to help them investigate threatening calls while safeguarding the valid privacy interests of callers who may choose to protect themselves or others from real harms.” The order also accomplished Mr. O’Rielly’s goal of limited the circumstances “loosely defined” private security personnel could obtain caller ID information.

Other than noting her support for the order, Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel did not make an additional statement. —Jeff Williams

Courtesy TRDaily