Apple Location-Tracking Drama Extends to Carriers, Prompts Hearing

Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile and Sprint have responded to lawmakers' requests for clarification on their location-data-collection policies. A hearing has been scheduled for May 10.

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.