Senators Grill Phone Execs On Mobile Privacy
Executives from the biggest brands in mobile computing were called to Capitol Hill Tuesday to clear up concerns that they have tracked and stored data about their customers' whereabouts, in some cases without their permission.
Apple and Google defended the location technology in iPhones and Android-software-based phones that makes some of their services possible for consumers and advertisers.
While the companies say they've taken precautions to protect privacy, lawmakers are looking at further ways to shield consumers.
There are already laws protecting privacy online, the bulk of which come from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But that law was passed in the mid-1980s. The latest devices were reportedly collecting and storing a cache of information about mobile customers' movements.
Researchers and regulators worry that customers don't understand how the data can be exploited by hackers and stalkers.
Jessica Rich, of the Consumer Protection Office of the Federal Trade Commission, testified that an example might be insurance companies looking to spy on consumers' bad habits.
"You can also know what church somebody has gone to," she added, "what political meeting they have gone to, when and where they walk to and from school, so that is sensitive data that requires special protection," she says.
Apple says it has fixed a bug that kept on tracking even after the customer switched off the location services, and in the future it will keep less of the information, and what it does keep will be encrypted.
The company's vice president for software technology, Bud Tribble, tried to dispel the Senate panel's concerns that the company was watching individual customers.
"I want to reassure you that Apple was never tracking an individual's location from the information residing in that cache," Tribble said. "Furthermore, the location data that was seen on the iPhone was not the past or present location of the iPhone but rather the location of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location."
Google executive Alan Davidson answered Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who had concerns about the phones' making it possible for third-party apps to gather information from the cache.
"We don't go after trucking companies because they happen to carry faulty goods. We go after manufacturers of those goods and I would say we are trying to strike the right balance," said Davidson.
"You do go after the trucking company if the company knew what it was carrying," Whitehouse responded. "Google was in a better position to know what is carried as a professional company that specIalizes and has vast resources than a 17-year-old who has been told by his friend this is a cool app to load."
Also testifying were small software development companies who warned that more regulation will hurt their chances of getting their products to market.
But the conversation is only beginning. Already there are two bills in the House seeking more privacy protections on mobile devices, and in the Senate, lawmakers say they are looking to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.