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FCC cracks down on anonymous calls to Jewish centers amid bomb threats

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks at Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks at Mobile World Congress 2017 in Barcelona, Spain.
Chris Welch / The Verge

Today, the Federal Communications Commission issued an emergency order in response to a recent string of bomb threats against Jewish Community Centers, temporarily waiving a privacy restriction that prevents carriers from disclosing caller information to the receiving party when the caller has requested anonymity. Those protections will only be lifted for calls made to Jewish Community Centers, hopefully giving investigators further clues as to the source of the calls.

The move comes two days after a public letter to the FCC from Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), who cited a previous order concerning a string of threats against schools in Middletown, NY, and urged the FCC to grant similar protections to JCCs.

Ultimately, the FCC found that the public safety concern outweighed the privacy considerations. “Recent phone threats documented in the Schumer letter and in public press reports pose a new, grave, and immediate danger to the ‘safety of life and property,’” the waiver reads. “We find here specific circumstances where the need to ensure public safety ... takes precedence over a caller’s interest in maintaining the privacy of his or her telephone number.” The waiver will remain in effect until a more formal Public Notice proceeding can be issued by the commission and made available for public comment.

In a public statement, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai applauded the waiver. “I am pleased that we are taking quick action to address this issue,” Paid said, “and hope that this waiver will help Jewish Community Centers, telecommunications carriers, and law enforcement agencies track down the perpetrators of these crimes.”

While the waiver will give investigators more information to work with, it’s unclear how useful it will be in tracking down the source of the threats. If the culprits are calling through a conventional phone, the waiver will successfully reveal the caller’s number — but if they are using a third-party routing service, only the name of the service will be revealed, which could leave investigators with few clues as to the ultimate origin of the call.

More than 100 bomb threats have been reported against Jewish centers since the beginning of the year, and police continue to investigate the source of the threats. Earlier today, police arrested disgraced journalist Juan Thompson in connection with eight of the threats, which they believe were made as part of a harassment campaign against Thompson’s ex-girlfriend.