Apple, Google Set to Appear at Congressional Hearing on Mobile Privacy

Apple and Google are on the witness list for the first Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law's first hearing, which will take place May 10 at 10 a.m. ET.

Apple and Google officials will be part of the first congressional hearing to result from the news that some Apple iPhone and Google Android-running smartphone are collecting extensive location data.

Hosted by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., the hearing will also be the first of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, and will include on its panels Guy Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology, and Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy in the Americas.

FCC Deputy Director Jessica Rich, Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein and Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology, will also be participating.

Franken, in a statement, said the "hearing is the first step in making certain that federal laws protecting consumers' privacy-particularly when it comes to mobile devices [such as smartphones, tablets and cell phones] keep pace with advances in technology.""If Senator Franken were to ask me my opinion about the whole issue of privacy and smartphones, I would urge him to focus on raising awareness of the issue, rather than regulating locating technology in modern smartphones," Charles King, principal analyst with Pund-IT, told eWEEK in a May 9 email. "What I think is necessary is that users be made aware of how applications are being used to track their location, and how that data is being stored. The information is useful to the companies collecting it, and can be sorted, analyzed, sold, and used for marketing and advertising. Consumers need to be aware of this so that they can make informed decisions about which apps they are willing to allow to collect their user information."In an April 20 blog post on O'Reilly Radar, two tech researchers wrote that, poking around deep in the files of an iPhone, they'd discovered nearly a year's worth of location data pertaining to the phone, with coordinate details being collected approximately 100 times a day. Worse, the pair wrote, "the file is unencrypted and unprotected, and it's on any machine you've synched with your iOS device."That smartphone should be location-aware wasn't the surprise-they need to provide the necessary support information to 911, for example, and to support GPS requests, Technology Business Research analyst Ken Hyers told eWEEK the same day."What bothers me is that the vast majority of users aren't even aware that this data is being collected and stored on their devices, meaning that they have no idea that it's there and needs to be protected," Hyers said. "The data could also be subpoenaed in a court case, whether civil or criminal, and easily read from the user's mobile device. Imagine how useful the information could be in a divorce proceeding?"Apple replied days later in a public statement, saying that it wasn't tracking its users but "maintaining a database of WiFi hotspots and cell towers" around each device's location. That quite so much information was being stored Apple blamed on a bug, explaining, "We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data."A bug was also to blame, it said, for the fact that many iPhones continue to collect the information even after users turned off the Location Services feature. Apple added that it planned to fix this shortly-and apparently has with iOS 4.3.3.Days later, the Wall Street Journal turned up May 2010 emails, related to a Google lawsuit, in which a Google engineer described the importance of a similar WiFi network database that Google was maintaining."I cannot stress enough how important Google's WiFi location database is to our Android and mobile-product strategy," the engineer wrote to Google CEO Larry Page, according to the Journal.Google said in a statement, according to a May 9 Reuters report, that it is looking forward to "engaging with policymakers."In addition to the Franken hearing, online privacy bills have since been introduced by Reps. Bobby Rush, D-Ill., and Jakie Speier, D-Calif., and by Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and John McCain, R-Ariz. Senate Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy has also taken on the topic."As Congress considers updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act and other Federal privacy laws, it is essential that the Senate Judiciary Committee have full and accurate information about the privacy risks posed by this new technology," Leahy wrote in letters to Google's Page and Apple CEO Steve Jobs."My take is that the [Franken] hearing won't really change anything," King told eWEEK. "Further down the road, though, companies may be required to provide more detailed explanations of how they collect and use location information, but those statements will be part of user agreements that most people (myself included) just click the 'I agree' button on and go their merry way."