Senators call for smartphone location tracking law

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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. During a Thursday hearing of the consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called on lawmakers to introduce a bill regulating consumer privacy across smartphones and the web, contending regulation is necessary to prevent the inappropriate sharing of user data. Kerry added that new privacy guidelines also will foster greater consumer confidence in emerging digital platforms.

"These devices are not really phones--they are miniature computers," said Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee. "The mobile marketplace is so new, and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions." Rockefeller is also asking Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL), Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and the Association for Competitive Technology trade association to demonstrate that their applications are in compliance with children's online privacy law.

Representatives from both Apple and Google appeared before the Senate panel Thursday, the second time in as many weeks that the companies have outlined their location tracking policies before lawmakers. Apple Vice President of Worldwide Government Affairs Catherine Novelli told the subcommittee that the company doesn't knowingly collect any information on children under age 13, adding that all location data gathered via iPhones and iPads is anonymous and can't be traced to individual users. All information is collected to improve device functionality, Novelli maintained: "Apple does not track users' location, has never done so and has no plans to do so," she said, reiterating previous statements from the computing giant.

Last week, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) urged Apple and Google to more closely police their mobile developer partners' efforts to collect and leverage location data, stating there are no restrictions on what third parties can do with the data--Franken also suggested that Google and Apple should require apps running on their platforms to display privacy policies. On Thursday, Novelli further outlined Apple's approach to monitoring iOS developers, explaining that when the company identifies an app misusing customer data, it gives the developer 24 hours to fix the problem or face expulsion from the App Store. The warning is a "great incentive" for developers to resolve such problems, she said.

"Google is also very careful about how we use and store the data that is generated by these services," said Alan Davidson, its director of public policy, during his testimony, indicating that Google provides parental controls to protect children and requires developers to rate the maturity level of apps offered in its Android Market. "The location information sent to Google servers when users opt in to location services on Android is anonymized and stored in the aggregate,'' Davidson said. "It's not tied or traceable to a specific user."

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.

Apple said the iPhone data collection resulted from a software bug patched earlier this month with the release of its iOS 4.3.3 update. IOS 4.3.3--compatible with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch and the iPad and iPad 2--reduces the size of the location database cache from up to a year to about a week, halts cache backup to iTunes and deletes the cache entirely when users disable their device's Location Services feature.

Apple currently faces two consumer lawsuits over the location tracking controversy. The first suit, filed Apr. 22 on behalf of iOS users Vikram Ajjampur and William Devito in federal court in Tampa, Fla., contends that Apple is secretly recording the movements of iPhone and iPad users and seeks a judge's order barring the practice. Ajjampur and Devito are also requesting refunds for their iOS product purchases, contending they would have steered clear of Apple devices had they known about the potential for location data tracking. The second suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico on behalf of Lymaris M. Rivera Diaz, clams Apple, The Weather Channel and Pandora Media intentionally intercepted personally identifying information and transmitted that data, along with location updates, to third-party advertisers.

For more:
- read this Bloomberg article

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