Apple & Google Summoned for Senate Hearing on Mobile Privacy

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.