The 5G Privacy Opportunity

The Federal Communications Commission announced on Sept. 16 that it would be granting experimental licenses for companies in New York City and Salt Lake City to test new advanced technologies and networks in specific geographic areas.

This initiative, dubbed Innovation Zones, will be especially useful in testing various technologies in real-world settings that will support 5G wireless networks.  These networks will offer a range of advanced wireless services nationwide, with initial rollout in urban centers where spatial and population density makes technical and economic sense.

The National Science Foundation’s Platform for Advanced Wireless Research formally proposed these particular Innovation Zones, to “enable experimental exploration of robust new wireless devices, communication techniques, networks, systems, and services that will revolutionize the nation’s wireless ecosystem, thereby enhancing broadband connectivity, leveraging the emerging Internet of Things, and sustaining U.S. leadership and economic competitiveness for decades to come.”

Here’s a way that the FCC can use these Innovation Zones for multiple purposes.  Since 5G networks will increase consumer demand for new wireless services, they also may create a communications environment where protection of consumer data becomes more difficult in practice.  That’s because a range of blossoming wireless services – both free and paid – will combine communications capability with other features, such as location tracking and facial recognition.  These are not unique to 5G technology, but its availability will spur big companies and entrepreneurs alike to develop compelling new applications that can take advantage of this more robust wireless platform.

The current Innovation Zone regime will allow qualifying firms to construct testing for multiple non-related experiments under a single five-year authorization within a defined geographic area.  The initial two Innovation Zones will allow licensees to undertake their activities in a dense area between Columbia University and Harlem in New York City, and encompassing both the University of Utah campus and downtown Salt Lake City, including the corridor connecting the two.

Why not make them Data Privacy Innovation Zones as well?  The FCC, as a condition of granting these experimental licenses, has the legal authority to require that any new wireless services to be tested also experiment with different forms of consumer privacy protection.

Opt-ins rather than opt-outs for additional features would be useful to evaluate, as would notice and consent terms that use video instead of text to let people know how their data is being collected, stored, and shared.  Variations in privacy protection based on whether the service was free or paid (and if paid, with different pricing levels) also may be useful to assess.

Under my proposal, each experimental licensee would be required to indicate the parameters of its privacy protection testing, both to the FCC and to consumers who agree to participate in it.

Just as these licensees will need to report their technical findings, the FCC could require that anonymous aggregated data regarding data privacy experimental options be made available to the agency.  This would be useful information to have as the need for new data privacy regulation or legislation is evaluated.  The FCC also could share this information with the Federal Trade Commission, which has current broad federal privacy enforcement authority, along with states that oversee consumer data protection more locally.

Encouraging data privacy experimentation as well as new communication technology testing would make New York City and Salt Lake City, along with other cities that follow, Innovation Zones in a broader and more beneficial way.

Stuart Brotman is a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington.  He is based in its Science and Technology Innovation Program, focusing on digital privacy policy issues.  This article appeared in the New York Daily News on Sept. 24, 2019.