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FCC Votes To Let Phone Companies, Cops Identify Anonymous Callers Behind Bomb Threats

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There are many legitimate reasons to hide or mask your Caller ID information but there are an increasing number of people who abuse this ability, not just for prank calls or telemarketing, but to phone in bomb threats or make other menacing calls — particularly to schools and religious centers. In an effort to make it easier for law enforcement respond to these threats, the Federal Communications Commission has approved a proposal that will allow phone companies to share certain Caller ID information with the police.

In a rare show of unity, all five FCC Commissioners voted today in favor of a rule to let phone companies share hidden Caller ID information with law enforcement in order to track down threats.

The Threats

In the midst of all the other political and cultural chaos at hand, this year kicked off with a wave of anti-Semitism: There were more than 100 serious threats made to Jewish community centers, schools, and synagogues during the just first two months of 2017.

The caller or callers phoning in the threats did as you might expect, and tried to cover their tracks. On the receiving end, the numbers displayed as unavailable, unidentified, private, or as a fake, spoofed number.

Private and spoofed numbers are both legal, often for good reason — for example, a shelter for survivors of domestic violence needs to be able to conceal its location and contact information, for its residents’ safety. But they present an obstacle to law enforcement trying to investigate a case.

In February, New York Senator Chuck Schumer asked the FCC to grant an emergency waiver permitting telecom carriers that serve the targeted centers to share Caller ID information from harassing and threatening calls.

The FCC granted that waiver on March 3, noting that the Commission does so “rarely.”

The Rule

The Commission today basically took action to make that temporary waiver a piece of permanent regulation that more folks who are threatened with violence have access to.

The new rule [PDF] basically creates an exemption in the law that prohibits telecom carriers from sharing blocked Caller ID information, and permits carriers to share information with law enforcement.

The exemption only applies “under specific circumstances,” the FCC writes, but if those circumstances are met then organizations that have been threatened will no longer need to apply and wait for case-by-case waivers in order for their phone companies to share information.

“The FCC continues to take seriously the privacy of law-abiding consumers,” the Commission hurries to add. Only law enforcement personnel and “others responsible for the safety and security of the threatened party” will be permitted to access blocked Caller ID information.

“By limiting the disclosure to law enforcement or security personnel for the purposes of investigating a threat,” the rule says, “we seek to prevent exploitations of the amended rule.”

The update also includes a waiver for private emergency services — like a private ambulance company — to be able to access blocked Caller ID information from callers requesting help. Public emergency services already have that waiver, the FCC notes.

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