Congress aims to curb mobile location tracking

Two recently introduced bills could stop companies from tracking consumers via smartphones.

Minnesota Sen. Al Franken is one of most vocal politicians in Washington when it comes to the issue of mobile privacy. In April, he sent letters to both Apple and Google asking if and how they collect location data on their users.

Franken later chaired hearings on the matter in May, and it appears that those hearings have resulted in the legislation that he and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) are introducing today. Called the Location Privacy Protection Act of 2011, the bill will compel companies such as Apple and Google to disclose what information is being collected, and give consumers the right to opt-out.

"Geolocation technology gives us incredible benefits, but the same information that allows emergency responders to locate us when we're in trouble is not necessarily information all of us want to share with the rest of the world," Franken said in a statement.

Indeed, many of our favorite apps are tracking us without our knowledge: a Wall Street Journal report last December found that 47 of the top 101 apps for the iPhone and Android platforms were tracking location data of their users without consent.

Franken points out that an clause hidden within the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986 permits wireless companies and app developers to share location data on their customers with just about anyone short of the US Government.

The Location Privacy Protection Act is similar to another bill introduced on Wednesday called the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act by Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) and Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah). The GPS Act goes further than the Location Privacy Protection Act -- it gives law enforcement and the government guidelines on how they are able to use any consumer data.

It isn't immediately clear whether or not either of these bills will make it through Congress. While the GPS Act is headed by a Republican, the issue of mobile privacy seems to have become more of an issue for Democrats on the Hill.

Republicans are typically reticent to place new regulations on business. However, with the issue of wireless surveillance nearly universally concerning Americans of all political stripes, this may be the exception to that rule.

For more tech news and commentary, follow Ed on Twitter at @edoswald and on Facebook.

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Ed Oswald

PC World (US online)
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