Executives from Apple (AAPL)and Google (GOOG)are facing another day of inquiries by the US Senate about mobile phones, privacy and user consent. Facebook even joined today’s Senate hearing. U.S. politicians are concerned that companies including Apple, Google and Facebook aren’t doing enough to protect their customers’ location privacy. Members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee are urging Congress to pass new laws awarding wireless subscribers greater control over how smartphones and applications track their location.
These companies plus thousands of developers who make applications for the companies’ platforms — are facing scrutiny over how they collect, use, and store information, including data gathered from smartphones and other wireless devices.
“I think anyone who uses a mobile device has an expectation of privacy, and sadly that expectation is not always being met,” said Sen. John Rockefeller IV, chairman of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation. “The mobile marketplace is so new and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions…A mother posting a smartphone photograph of her child online, he suggested, may not realize that “geotagged” location data may be embedded in the image file.”
The furor over location tracking exploded last month after British researchers Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden reported that iPhone and iPod devices had recorded location and time-stamp data since the mid-2010 release of the iOS 4 software update, effectively creating a comprehensive log of all user movement and activities during that time. Apple broke its silence on the matter several days later, explaining that iOS devices are, in fact, gathering location information to maintain a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in the user’s vicinity, enabling an iPhone to more rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Apple added that calculating a phone’s whereabouts via only GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes, while its approach can slash the process to a few seconds.
Google’s Alan Davidson said that 40 percent of all use of Google Maps comes from mobile devices like iPhones and Android handsets. Still, he agreed that those services won’t continue to be used if providers if consumers can’t trust the their privacy is being protected.
An executive from Apple said “Apple does not track users’ location, has never done so, and has no plans to do so. If an app misuses data, the company gives the developer 24 hours to fix the problem or be removed from the App Store.”