Apple & Google Summoned for Senate Hearing on Mobile Privacy

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Senator Al Franken has convened a Senate hearing on mobile privacy to be held on May 10th, and tops on the list of invitees are Google, maker of the Android operating system, and Apple, maker of the iPhone and iOS. Titled, “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy,” the hearing was announced as controversy about the ways in which both companies might be collecting data about their users has mounted.

“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,” Mr. Franken said in a statement. “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.”

While Apple and Google have so far been “invited,” meaning that neither company has yet responded to the summons, Senator Franken’s office confirmed that the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission have confirmed that they would have representatives at the hearing. Attending hearings such as these is not mandatory, per se, but such invitations are rarely declined.

Other attendees that have confirmed their appearances include Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, and Justin Brookman, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy.

Google reportedly collects data from Android-powered smartphones every few seconds, with Android devices transmitting that data back to Google “several times an hour.” That data includes location information for the device, as well as the name, location and signal strength of any nearby WiFi networks. Google has said the information is anonymous, though one researcher said that a unique identifier is gathered and transmitted.

Apple told two U.S. Representatives last Summer in a letter that it was collecting data through its iOS devices on WiFi networks for use with location services. In that letter, Apple said that the data was transmitted via WiFi back to Apple once every twelve hours, and that the information was not tied to user (i.e., that it is anonymously collected).

For his part, Apple CEO Steve Jobs reportedly told a customer over the weekend that, “We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.” The short missive (should it actually be from Mr. Jobs) doesn’t stipulate whether he is referring to the information supplied by his company to Congress or perhaps the story about location data being stored on iPhone and iPad users’ computers (that is not being transmitted to Apple).

Senator Franken is chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law and the newly announced hearing follows a letter to Mr. Jobs asking for detailed information about why Apple is storing the above-mentioned information, and whether or not the tracking data has been shared with anyone. Senator Franken has also pressed other tech companies such as Facebook on privacy issues in his role as chairman of this subcommittee.

The meeting will be held at the Senate Office Building on May 10th, 2011, at 10:00 AM EDT.

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Comments

other side

Wonder if this will just turn into a kid-gloves formality with no problems being found.  What with Obama being an Apple guy, and Apple execs being Democrat party donors….

Bryan Chaffin

It could, but Senator Franken has an aggressive record on privacy in his short tenure in office. I would imagine that members of the subcommittee from both parties will try to appear strong on consumer privacy, and ask hard questions of both the companies and the executive branch (DoJ and FTC) attendees at the hearing.

Whether anything comes of that is what I expect the real question to be.  Senate committee (and subcommittee) chairpersons can hold hearings all day long without anything necessarily coming of it.

And there’s still the question of whether Apple or Google are doing anything wrong to begin with.

One thing we know for certain is that many users value the location-based services made possible by these databases of WiFi networks being assembled by Apple, Google, and other players in this market. Are those players doing enough to protect our privacy in the process of building those databases, or are they going to the opposite direction and actually trying to profit from our privacy?

We simply don’t know enough about this yet.  Hopefully the hearing will help shed some light on the subject.

Noah

Someone’s looking for a little publicity and for once it’s neither Apple nor Google.

Lee Dronick

Someone?s looking for a little publicity and for once it?s neither Apple nor Google.

Sen. Franken chairs the subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law which includes oversight of laws and policies governing the collection, protection, use, and dissemination of commercial information by the private sector, including online behavioral advertising; privacy within social networking websites and other online privacy issues; enforcement and implementation of commercial information privacy laws and policies; use of technology by the private sector to protect privacy, enhance transparency and encourage innovation; privacy standards for the collection, retention, use and dissemination of personally identifiable commercial information; and privacy implications of new or emerging technologies.

geoduck

Sen. Franken chairs the subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law which includes…

You left out “so it is his job to investigate this sort of thing.”

What I would want to know:
Early reports stated that this data was not transmitted back to Apple. This article says that it is. Which is is?

Is this data being used by third party software? Maybe the data isn’t going to Apple but if it’s being accessed and used by other companies that’s no better, in some ways it might be worse.

To paraphrase Tevye:
Would it spoil some vast eternal plan,
If you only kept current position and no historical data?

BurmaYank

Early reports stated that this data was not transmitted back to Apple. This article says that it is. Which is it?

What Steve said is the truth (”... We don?t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.”) Here in this excerpt from Intruder‘s 4/25 link is why:

“The quick summary: I believe I have confirmed that Apple is not storing your location, but the (actual or estimated) location of cell towers (and WiFi access points) that are close to you, to help locate you as you move (these are not necessarily towers that you have been in communication with). In the data I have examined there is nothing that is based on the accurate location of the iPhone. For a good example, see my previous post showing the location of cell equipment in Coors Field baseball stadium, and not revealing the location of my home which is very close to there. In my opinion, if Apple was storing this data in order to know where you had been, they would be storing different, more accurate location data that they have access to.

And, importantly, they are not storing history - the only thing that can be found from the files is when you last visited a general area, not if you made repeat visits. This is especially important as it means that many of the concerns expressed about this data are simply not valid: it cannot be used to determine where you live, or work, or go to school, or who your doctor is.

Why does the FUD spiral on without any significant references this article’s point, that “Apple’s iPhone is NOT storing your accurate location, and NOT storing history” and it’s not sending any personal location info back to Apple, getting raised in contradiction to the FUD?!

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