Senator: Google, Apple sending mixed signals on tracking

Lawmakers question whether new laws are needed to protect smartphone customers

Representatives of Apple and Google denied that they are collecting the personal information of owners of smartphones running their operating systems, but a U.S. senator questioned whether those denials were accurate during a hearing Tuesday.

Apple appears to have made conflicting statements about the location information its smartphones and tablets collect, Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy and technology subcommittee.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in a response to a recent controversy about smartphone tracking, said the company's collection of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell tower locations "are not telling you anything about your location," Franken noted. Yet, Apple has also said the collected information will "help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location," he said.

"It doesn't appear that both of these statements could be true at the same time," Franken added.

The anonymous data Apple collects doesn't contain any information about individual customers, said Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology. However, when that information is downloaded to an iPhone, the smartphone can pinpoint its own location, he said.

The Apple database is "only about the cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots," Tribble said.

Both Apple and Google are releasing "confusing" information about what location data they collect, Franken said. "They both said, 'Yes, we're getting location, but it's not your location,'" he said. "Whose location is it?"

In many cases, the location information smartphones collect, outside of GPS, can be accurate to within 100 feet of the device, said Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher. Using Wi-Fi and cell-phone location databases, Soltani's smartphone was able to pinpoint his location within 20 feet in a Senate office building, he said.

"Depending on how you want to slice it, I would consider that my location," Soltani said. "It's really difficult to call this stuff anonymous. Making these claims is not really sincere."

Franken also questioned whether Apple could be the subject of a U.S. Federal Trade Commission enforcement action for continuing to collect location information after telling customers it would not collect location information if they turned off the option in their phone settings.

The continued collection of location information was a "bug" that Apple has fixed in the iOS, Tribble said.

Senators suggested new laws may be needed to govern the collection of data over mobile phones, even though Google and Apple both have privacy requirements for application providers. Currently, the sharing of location information from mobile operators and apps providers to third parties is a "wild West" with few restrictions in place, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.

But Congress should be careful about creating new restrictions, particularly for small application developers who are enjoying a renaissance because of smartphones, said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing many small and midsized IT firms.

Lawmakers should look at privacy in a holistic manner and not target smartphone developers, 85 percent of which are small businesses, Zuck said. Small developers need to share information with third parties to support their business models, he said.

"To focus on a particular type of data collection in a particularly new market would necessarily discriminate against the small businesses that are responsible for so much economic growth in the mobile sector, leaving larger players untouched," Zuck added.

U.S. residents seem to be more concerned about the multiple major data breaches at large companies than about mobile apps collecting some location data, Zuck added. Recent data breaches at Sony, Epsilon and other companies are "really causing the concern and fear among customers, not the prospect of getting one more customized ad to their phone," he said.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags governmentprivacymobilesmartphonesregulationGoogleApplelegislationtelecommunicationPhonessteve jobsconsumer electronicsU.S. Federal Trade CommissionU.S. Senate Judiciary CommitteeRichard BlumenthalAl FrankenAshkan SoltaniJonathan ZuckGuy

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

Grant Gross

IDG News Service
Show Comments

Cool Tech

Toys for Boys

Family Friendly

Stocking Stuffer

SmartLens - Clip on Phone Camera Lens Set of 3

Learn more >

Christmas Gift Guide

Click for more ›

Brand Post

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Michael Hargreaves

Microsoft Office 365/Dell XPS 15 2-in-1

I’d recommend a Dell XPS 15 2-in-1 and the new Windows 10 to anyone who needs to get serious work done (before you kick back on your couch with your favourite Netflix show.)

Maryellen Rose George

Brother PT-P750W

It’s useful for office tasks as well as pragmatic labelling of equipment and storage – just don’t get too excited and label everything in sight!

Cathy Giles

Brother MFC-L8900CDW

The Brother MFC-L8900CDW is an absolute stand out. I struggle to fault it.

Luke Hill

MSI GT75 TITAN

I need power and lots of it. As a Front End Web developer anything less just won’t cut it which is why the MSI GT75 is an outstanding laptop for me. It’s a sleek and futuristic looking, high quality, beast that has a touch of sci-fi flare about it.

Emily Tyson

MSI GE63 Raider

If you’re looking to invest in your next work horse laptop for work or home use, you can’t go wrong with the MSI GE63.

Laura Johnston

MSI GS65 Stealth Thin

If you can afford the price tag, it is well worth the money. It out performs any other laptop I have tried for gaming, and the transportable design and incredible display also make it ideal for work.

Featured Content

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?