Apple Location-Tracking Drama Extends to Carriers, Prompts Hearing

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2011-04-29

Apple Location-Tracking Drama Extends to Carriers, Prompts Hearing

Verizon Wireless, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have each responded to requests from lawmakers regarding their policies toward the location-based information that the smartphones they offer collect.

The fact that smartphones-which make heavy use of location-relevant information, from offering walking directions to enabling 911 calls to be tracked-are continually noting the location of users came into the public consciousness after two tech researchers in the United Kingdom realized that their iPhones, in a deeply buried file, had been saving location data since being updated to iOS 4.

Particularly upsetting to the researchers and to others was the fact that the stockpile of data-the iPhone had noted its whereabouts approximately 100 times a day for nearly a year-was unencrypted. That has drawn sharp criticism from the likes of U.S. Reps. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Joe Barton, R-Texas, both of whom are among the lawmakers most vocal over the issue and had asked the wireless carriers for their policies.

"The responses of the wireless carriers provide important insights into how each company collects, uses and stores personal location data, including examples of how consumers can grant or withhold consent when location-based services are utilized," Markey said in an April 28 statement. "Consumer consent and control are critical to ensure adequate privacy protections, and the responses shine a light on the various methods used to safeguard consumers' sensitive information.

Verizon, for example, noted in its response that before any location information may be collected, used or shared, customers must turn on their device's location settings feature. Additionally, "customers must affirmatively consent to the use of their location information when opening and using the application for the first time," according to the carrier. In addition, in an April 19 letter sent to Markey and Barton, Verizon officials said they soon will be putting a removable sticker on new devices alerting buyers that the handset could be use for location-tracking purposes.

As more Americans, including children, use such location-aware devices, Markey said, the "protection of consumer privacy must be a priority." He said he will continue to "examine and investigate" privacy safeguards and propose strengthening measures where appropriate.

Carrier Responses Leave Feeling of Uneasiness


Somewhat less sated, Barton said in his statement that the carriers' responses had left him with a feeling of "uneasiness and uncertainty."

"The companies informed us that customer consent before access of location data is a common practice, but the disconnect is when third-party applications come in to play," Barton said. That "third-party developers can access the location of customers anytime they want [is] a huge problem. They shouldn't have free rein over your location data and personally identifiable information. I believe it is time we hold third-party developers accountable, and I am determined to work with other members of Congress to get this done."

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., confirmed April 28 that Apple and Google will send representatives to a hearing he plans to hold on the matter. Titled "Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy," it's scheduled to take place May 10 at 10 a.m. EDT.

"This hearing will serve as a first step in investigating if federal law protecting consumer privacy-particularly when it relates to mobile devices like smartphones and tablets-is keeping pace with advances in technology," Franken said.

Citing privacy concerns, two Michigan residents have filed a suit against Google, Bloomberg reported April 29. The pair is up in arms regarding the way that their Android OS-running HTC Inspire 4G smartphones have been tracking their whereabouts, "just as if by a tracking device for which a court-ordered warrant would ordinarily be required," the report said, quoting the suit.

The pair is seeking "at least $50 million damages" and is requesting that Google be made to "stop tracking its products' users."

Apple, whose "brand perception" has reportedly been sullied by the matter, posted a response to similar tracking accusations on its Website April 27. It blamed on "a bug" its iOS 4-running devices preserving quite so much user-location data, which it said it plans to fix. Its main insistence, however, was that, while it is essentially calculating its devices' location based on WiFi hotspot and cell tower data, it is not "tracking the location of your iPhone."

The statement added, "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."


Rocket Fuel