Senate Panel Grills Apple, Google Over Cell Phone Privacy

Executives face questions about phones that store users' location data.

May 10, 2011 — -- Maybe smart phones are a little too smart.

That was the thinking on Capitol Hill today as Congress jumped into the debate over whether smart phone users' privacy is compromised by the amount of information that smart phones gather and share.

A Senate Judiciary subcommittee chaired by Minnesota Democratic Rep. Al Franken grilled representatives from Apple and Google on how to better protect their users' mobile privacy.

Both companies have faced recent criticism on concerns about reports that their smart phones store users' location data.

In a recent letter to Apple boss Steve Jobs, Franken voiced concerns that the company's iOS 4 operating system secretly stores users' location information on their iPhones and iPads and computers used to sync these devices. That sensitive information, Franken noted, is stored for up to a year and, moreover, it is kept unencrypted, leaving it vulnerable to criminals.

"I love that I can use Google maps -- for free no less -- and the same for the app on my iPad that tells me the weather, but I think there's a balance, a balance, we need to strike and this means we begin to change the way we think about privacy to account for the massive shift of our personal information into the hands of the private sector," Franken said at today's hearing.

"If it came out that the DMV was creating a detailed file on every single trip you've taken in the past year, do you think they could go one whole week without answering a question from a reporter?"

"I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them," Franken stated. "I also believe they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information and with whom they want to share it and when."

Franken warned that breaches of privacy "can have real consequences for real people," such as victims getting stalked by devices with global positioning systems (GPS). In 2006 -- when there were a third as many smart phones as there are today -- more than 26,000 adults were stalked by GPS devices, Franken cited. But he cautioned that he does not want to end location-based devices, but rather to "find a balance" that lets consumers keep the benefits of the devices while not compromising their privacy.

In response, Bud Tribble from Apple and Alan Davidson from Google touted their companies' commitments to protecting users' privacy and highlighted the fact that users can choose to opt out of location-based services.

"We do not share personally identifiable information with third parties for their marketing purposes without our customers' explicit consent, and we require all third party application developers to agree to specifically restrictions protecting our customers' privacy," Tribble said.

"We use information where we can provide value to our users and we apply the principles of transparency, control and security. We are particularly sensitive when it comes to location information," Davidson told the panel.

"We believe that this approach is essential for location services: highly transparent information for users about what is being collected; opt-in choice before location information is collected; and high security standards to anonymize and protect information," he stated. "Our hope is that this becomes the standard for the broader industry."

Apple, Google Execs Respond to Senate Privacy Questions

In the wake of the explosion of the smart phone market in recent years, representatives from the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission noted that the "always on, always with you" nature of smart phones is cause for concern when it comes to privacy issues.

"Companies should have privacy by design," said Jessica Rich of the FTC.

Another witness, Justin Brookman from the Center for Democracy & Technology, told senators that the popular music app Pandora makes users' age, gender, location and phone identifier available to advertisers.

The representatives from Apple and Google were also asked why they have thus far refused to remove apps that help drunk drivers evade police. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., recently asked Apple, Google and Research in Motion (RIM), the makers of Blackberry spartphones, to remove such applications, but only RIM has complied with the request.

Google's Davidson told Schumer that "it's a question that we're actively discussing internally."

"You agree it's a terrible thing?" asked Schumer.

"I agree that it's a bad thing," acknowledged Davidson.

While today's Judiciary subcommittee hearing did not focus on any specific pieces of legislation moving through Congress, there are currently a number of bills floating around Capitol Hill to address the issue of smart phone privacy.