Senator Sics FTC on Apple, Google Photo Theft

Senator Charles Schumer called for the Federal Trade Commission to force Apple and Google to crack down on their mobile phone privacy policies, which allows application makers to store phone photos on remote servers.

The revelation that applications running on Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) iPhones and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) Android handsets lift users' photos and contacts and post them online unbeknownst to users has a U.S. senator urging the Federal Trade Commission to look into the matter.

Senator Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) wrote in a letter to the FCC that he didn't like the fact that applications running on iPhones and Android phones can tap into users' photo albums on the Web, as well as the previous revelation by a software programmer that apps running on Apple's iOS platform can siphon a user's entire address book of contacts.

"These uses go well beyond what a reasonable user understands himself to be consenting to when he allows an app to access data on the phone for purposes of the app's functionality," Schumer said in a letter to the FTC, seen by Reuters. Schumer worries that the terms of service Apple and Google arranged for their third-party app stores are not being properly enforced.

The update comes after The New York Times uncovered some disturbing information, first about iOS apps, and then about Android programs running on smartphones.

Specifically, when a user allows an app on an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch to have access to location information, the app can copy the user's entire photo library, without warning users.

Worse, the Times noted that Android apps do not need permission to get a user's photos. If an app has the right to access the Internet, it can copy those photos to a remote server without notifying users.

Google defended its practice, noting that it designed an Android photo file system similar to those of other computing platforms like Windows and Mac OS.

The update came two weeks after social network service Path and several other makers of iOS applications acknowledged storing users' address books on remote servers without users' explicit permission. Address books include full names, phone numbers and email addresses.

Energy and Commerce Committee Ranking Member Henry A. Waxman and Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee Ranking Member G. K. Butterfield sent a letter Feb. 15 to Apple CEO Tim Cook requesting more information about the company's privacy policies.

Apple responded rapidly by ordering any app that wants to access user contact data will require explicit user approval.

"Apps that collect or transmit a user's contact data without their prior permission are in violation of our guidelines," Apple claimed in a statement Feb. 15. "We're working to make this even better for our customers, and as we have done with location services, any app wishing to access contact data will require explicit user approval in a future software release."

If the FTC is looking to crack the whip on Apple and Google, those companies may have to make changes regarding their current privacy policies.

Schumer certainly hopes so, noting in his letter to the FTC that "smartphone makers should be required to put in place safety measures to ensure third-party applications are not able to violate a user's personal privacy by stealing photographs or data that the user did not consciously decide to make public."