Franken to Apple, Google: Mobile Customers’ Privacy Not Being Protected (Video)

Senator puts companies on the line at a first-ever congressional hearing on mobile technology and privacy

“People have a right to know who is collecting their data and how it is being collected,” Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) said Tuesday at a first-ever congressional hearing on mobile technology and privacy.

Directly referring to recent complaints against both Apple and Google, Franken pressed the companies to ensure the privacy and safety of mobile device users.

The clear message was a warning of new legislation to strengthen laws that aim to protect consumers against misuse of their personal data.

“I have serious doubts that those rights are being protected in law or in practice,” Franken told members of the Senate Judiciary’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, of which he is chairman. “Mobile will be the predominant way that people will get access to the internet, so this is an urgent matter.” 

The hearing comes on the heels of complaints last month that Apple was using new software in iPhones and iPads to track the movement of users. The company responded with a statement that it was not actually tracking individual users but merely collecting anonymous traffic data so it could improve service.

At the hearing, government regulators, privacy and technology experts and representatives from Apple and Google and the mobile applications developer industry were queried on how location-based applications are storing and sharing consumer data.

Read also: Apple: 'We're Recording iPhone Location Data to Improve Service'

The lawmakers specifically asked how current industry practices might make consumer information vulnerable to misuse. 

Lawmakers asked representatives from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission to submit reports on gaps in current privacy legislation. Then they asked Apple and Google to describe the efforts they take to prevent third-party mobile application developers from misusing customer data.

Guy L. “Bud” Tribble, Apple’s vice president of software technology restated the company’s position that the computer maker is using the devices to create a crowd-sourced database of wi-fi hotspot and cell-tower data. That would be used, he said, to improve service to consumers who use mobile apps to help them find the nearest gas station or grocery store. 

The continual tracking of wireless hotspots and cell tower data was the result of a bug that Apple has fixed in a software update released last week, Tribble said. He added that the company will fix a bug that prevents consumers from disabling the tracking feature in a future update. 

With respect to monitoring application develpers, Tribble said the company conducts random audits on the 350,000 mobile apps available to its iPhone users, and if Apple finds that an app violates the company’s privacy policy, it is removed from the App store. No apps have been removed as a result of this policy thus far, he said.

In the name of keeping an open platform, Google takes less stringent measures to monitor its developers, Alan Davidson, Google, Inc. director of public policy told the lawmakers. 

Justin Brookman, director of the Project on Consumer Privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told lawmakers that existing electronic consumer privacy laws don’t offer consumers meaningful protection. 

So far, companies including Google and Twitter have been sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission for not following their own stated privacy policies. But that is as far as the FTC enforcement can go.

“The bar is still very low,” Brookman said. “It’s not possible to figure out how data is being stored by apps and shared.” 

In related news, Congressman Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.), co-Chairman of the Bi-Partisan Congressional Privacy Caucus, released a statement on Tuesday on Apple’s response to location-tracking complaints.

 “I am pleased that after my letter Apple announced that its next iOS update would address several of the concerns I raised about the company’s practices with respect to the collection, use and disclosure of location information,” Markey said.

Specifically, Apple will encrypt location information stored on customers’ iPhones and iPads and other Apple mobile devices and significantly shorten the amount of time location information is retained by the company.

But Markey said he remained concerned about “the apparent contradiction between Apple’s assertion that it does not track consumers and its explanation that it maintains a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around a user’s current location. Such a distinction does not make much difference to consumers whose location could be pinpointed with great accuracy.”

He pledged to continue to “closely monitor the company's efforts to protect this extremely sensitive data, especially with respect to information about minors and children."