Senators Press Google, Apple Execs on Privacy and Location Tracking

In a hearing on Tuesday about the amount of data that mobile device manufacturers, app developers and others collect about users’ location and activities, senators called on Apple, Google and other companies to be more open and clear with consumers about their data-collection and tracking mechanisms.

iPhone trackingIn a hearing on Tuesday about the amount of data that mobile device manufacturers, app developers and others collect about users’ location and activities, senators called on Apple, Google and other companies to be more open and clear with consumers about their data-collection and tracking mechanisms.

After praising the innovation and intelligence of the engineers at Apple and Google in his opening remarks, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who called the hearing of the Privacy, Technology and Law Subcommittee, asked a number of pointed questions of those companies’ representatives. Most notably, Franken asked both the Google and Apple executives at the hearing whether their companies would now begin requiring app developers to have a privacy policy in order to get their work into the companies’ respective app stores.

Neither Guy Tribble of Apple nor Alan Davidson of Google answered the question directly at first, talking around the topic while acknowledging that it was an important question. Interestingly, the executive who Google sent to testify at the hearing is a policy expert, while Apple’s representative is an engineer.

“At Google, we tried to maximize the openness of the platform,” said Davidson, director of public policy for the Americas at Google. “We will take that issue [or privacy policies for app developers] back to our leadership. It’s a good suggestion to think about.”

“Probably a privacy policy in this general area isn’t enough. We need to put things in the user interface to make it clear what’s happening with the information. Apple thinks this way,” said Tribble, vice president of software technology at Apple. “Transparency here goes beyond what’s in the privacy policy.”

Franken called the hearing in the wake of the controversy last month over research showing that Apple tracks the location of devices through the use of a database of wireless hotspots and cell towers that users have visited recently. Franken called on Apple to explain the situation and the company later published an FAQ saying that the location database on iPhones and iPads doesn’t identify the devices or enable the company to track users individually.

On Tuesday, Franken said that vendors and app developers have a responsibility to be clearer with consumers about the data that they collect, how long it’s retained and how it’s used. Regardless of whether Apple or any other company actually does track users, the possibility of it happening is concerning, he said.

“Reports suggest that the information on our mobile devices isn’t being protected the way it should be. Our federal laws do far too little to protect this information,” Franken said. “Some of these [privacy] policies are so long and complicated that they’re almost universally dismissed before being read.”

And while some consumers are aware of the kind of data that companies collect and what they may do with it, that group is a tiny minority of the overall user base. Other, less-informed consumers have little recourse if they want to get that data, too, Franken said.

“The Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to corporations. The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to Silicon Valley,” Franken said.

Officials from the Justice Department of the Federal Trade Commission also were called to testify at Tuesday’s hearing, and both emphasized the need for better transparency about data collection and location tracking capabilities on mobile devices.

“We believe consumers have no idea really of the layers of sharing that goes on behind the scenes,” said Jessica Rich, deputy director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the FTC. “Companies should have privacy by design. They need to give it serious thought so they develop in a way that maximizes the privacy of that data.”

Suggested articles

Discussion

Subscribe to our newsletter, Threatpost Today!

Get the latest breaking news delivered daily to your inbox.