Apple’s and Google’s practice of collecting geographical location data on their smartphone users has prompted lawmakers to quiz both companies over the privacy implications. Senator Al Franken and Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan have each summoned Apple and Google to appear before a Senate judiciary hearing on mobile privacy scheduled for May 10. Illinois attorney general Lisa Madigan said in a statement:
I want to know whether consumers have been informed of what is being tracked and stored by Apple and Google and whether those tracking and storage features can be disabled.
And here’s from Senator Franken:
Recent advances in mobile technology have allowed Americans to stay connected like never before and put an astonishing number of resources at our fingertips. But the same technology that has given us smartphones, tablets, and cell phones has also allowed these devices to gather extremely sensitive information about users, including detailed records of their daily movements and location. This hearing is the first step in making certain that federal laws protecting consumers’ privacy-particularly when it comes to mobile devices-keep pace with advances in technology.
Other privacy watchdogs will speak at the May 10 hearing, including privacy expert Ashkan Soltani, top brass from the Federal Trade Commission and the Department of Justice and Justin Brookman, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy. Meanwhile, CNET has learned that Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 also tracks users’ location and phones home.
Both Democratic Senator Franken and Republican Senator Ed Markey last week issued public letters to Steve Jobs and Google seeking clarification to a number of questions related to the collection of location data on iPhone and Android users without their consent. But things have already gone too far and possible probes from the governments of South Korea, France, Germany and Italy are the least of Apple’s worries. Read on…
This comes just as we learned that two Tampa, Florida-based iPhone customers have sued Apple over location tracking. An email purporting to be from Steve Jobs dismissed the reports as false, saying Apple doesn’t track anyone and instead stressing that Android does. However, The Wall Street Journal discovered that turning off location services doesn’t prevent iOS from tracking your location. The device keeps collecting this information in regular intervals by triangulating cellular towers. iOS stores this data in a database on a device, copying it to a file on your computer at each iTunes sync. The file is unencrypted unless encryption is turned on in iTunes.
Most folks rarely use iTunes encryption, however, because it slows down the syncing process considerably. As a result of this, malicious users could theoretically steal your device or a computer and access up to a year’s worth of location history. A spokesperson for Google insists that Android location sharing is an opt-in, claiming any location data sent to Google’s servers is anonymized.
Apple hasn’t yet publicly commented on the issue, but various tests confirm that neither iOS devices nor desktop iTunes send back your location data to Apple. Both companies maintain they track location in order to improve the experience for users. It’ll be interesting seeing how this plays out because privacy advocates are all over this story. Plus, there’s no doubt that Locationgate will give VIP users of iOS devices a pause, including President Obama.
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