Apple, Google Execs Defend Privacy Practices During Senate Hearing

Apple and Google executives were among the witnesses questioned by a Senate subcommittee regarding consumer location data collected and stored by mobile devices.

Officials with Apple and Google defended their companies' privacy policies to a skeptical Senate panel that is looking into the issue of the iPhone and Android-based smartphones collecting location data on the users.

In both submitted written and oral testimony May 10, Alan Davidson, director of public policy at Google, and Dr. Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president for software technology, said their policies are designed to protect the privacy of their customers, though noting that obtaining certain location data for short-term use is important for such applications as Google Maps.

"Apple does not track users' locations," Tribble said in his written testimony, echoing a line from an initial Apple April 27 response to the uproar. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

The Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law launched the hearing following revelations that mobile devices from the two companies have been collecting and storing location information. The matter added fuel to an ongoing debate regarding personal privacy in the age of the Internet. The hearing is clearly the beginning of what will be an extensive and ongoing debate, as legislators work to find a balance between the benefits of mobile technology and the need to protect consumers' data and privacy.

"The digital age can do some wonderful, wonderful things for all of us ... but there are also new risks to consumers' privacy," Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy said in his opening remarks.

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who chaired the hearing, noted that when he was growing up, people believed they needed protection from the all-seeing eye of the government. Now, he said, people also have relationships with big corporations that are collecting and storing data about us.

"The existence of this business model is not a bad thing," Franken said. "I love that I can use Google Maps for free, and get the weather on my iPad. But we need to strike a balance."

Seemingly working to put his star witnesses at ease, he applauded Apple and Google for their innovations, describing, for example, how a parent can now, over video chat, say good night to their child from halfway around the world.

"No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from doing what they do," Franken said. "What today is about is trying to find the balance between all of the wonderful things [they do] and consumers' privacy."

Part of the uproar following the discovery of the devices' collected data was that information wasn't encrypted. Underscoring the seriousness of unsecured location data, Franken noted that in response to his April 20 letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, regarding the matter, the first group of his constituents to reach out to him was one that supports battered women. Each year, he said, 26,000 people are stalked using GPS devices - and that's based on 2006 data. Today, many more people carry and have access to location-aware technology.In Apple's case, officials have said the data being cached by the devices are populating a crowd-sourced database of WiFi hotspots and cell tower information in the area.The Wall Street Journal reported May 1 that in early 2010 Google disclosed that the vehicles it used to take street-level images for Google Maps had "inadvertently collected personal data from unsecured wireless networks."At one point during the hearing, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., questioned the panel about whether the "inadvertently collected" information wasn't actually very valuable. He additionally pressed Google's Davidson about whether Google had actually filed a patent for such a collection technique."The payload information is extremely valuable for creating the database, is it not?" Blumenthal asked.Davidson and Tribble both said they doubted the value of the snippets of collected data, and Davidson added that he had never before seen the patent information Blumenthal produced, noting that Google files applications for if not hundreds at least scores of patents each year.What will happen to the information that was collected, Davidson and Tribble were asked."We have been asked to destroy the data, and we have done so," Davidson said. "We do not intend to ever use this data, we intend to dispose of it."Blumenthal asked whether he'd agree that collecting such data from unknowing consumers was illegal.Davidson, seeming somewhat discomforted by Blumenthal's insistence, answered, "It's our position that it's not illegal, but it wasn't our intent."In his written testimony, Davidson explained that Google not only offers a well-known search engine but the Android operating system, which is now on more than 170 devices offered by 27 manufacturers. He explained:
Without the trust of our users, we simply would not be able to offer these services or platforms because on the Internet, competing services are only one click away. If we fail to offer clear, usable privacy controls, transparency in our privacy practices, and strong security, our users will simply switch to another provider. This is as true for our services that are available on mobile devices as it is for those that are available on desktop computers. For this reason, location sharing on Android devices is strictly opt-in for our users, with clear notice and control.
Franken, in conclusion, noted that as mobile devices will eventually be the predominant way that people access the Internet, it's imperative that consumers' rights are established regarding how information is collected and stored."I still have serious doubts that those rights are being respected, in law or in practice," he said.