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Apple And Google At The Senate Privacy Hearing: What You Might Have Missed

Mobile Privacy

The Huffington Post   First Posted: 05/11/11 12:02 AM ET Updated: 07/10/11 06:12 AM ET

At a senate hearing today, Apple and Google defended themselves against allegations that the companies do an inadequate job of protecting user privacy on mobile devices.

The hearing came as a result of a report revealing that Apple's iPhones store precise locational data in unencrypted files on the devices. Google's Android phones were found to do the same. The hearing, "Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy," sought to examine the situation of the privacy landscape as it regards the mobile sphere.

Apple's vice president of software, "Bud" Tribble and Google's director of public policy, Alan Davidson, both appeared at the hearings to testify. Both emphasized that their users have the ability to control the collection and use of location-related data gathered by their smartphones.

But Senator Al Franken, in his opening remarks, pointed out that once app makers, companies like Apple and Google, or even wireless providers get location information, current federal law leaves them, as well as the companies they share such information with free to "disclose your location information and other sensitive information to almost anyone they please-without letting you know."

The hearing made it clear that navigating privacy in America today has no clear guidelines as to what is correct, appropriate, or needed, to protect consumers without stifling innovation. Senator Richard Blumenthal referred to the situation as "a Wild West."

"The default law for sharing of data is you can do whatever you want," said Justin Brookman, a representative from the Center for Democracy and Technology.

Franken pressed Tribble hard on the issue of whether or not iPhones do or do not track location.

"Does this data indicate anything about your location or doesn't it?" he asked Tribble.

“That data does not actually contain…any information about customer information at all. It’s completely anonymous; it’s only about the cell phone towers and the Wi-Fi hotspots," Tribble answered.

But Ashkan Solkani, an independent privacy researcher, seemed to disagree, and argued that the data these companies are collecting can be used not only to pinpoint user location, but even to determine user identity.

"It’s really difficult to call this stuff anonymous, Solkani said. "Making those claims is not really sincere."

The hearing also focused on the vast ecosystem of third-party applications that populate both the iPhone and Android ecosystems. Such third-party apps often gain access to the location related and other personally identifiable data, and may be able to share the information without having to tell the consumer they are doing so.

But Tribble doesn't believe that requiring privacy policies for apps is the right step.

"People may not read a privacy policy," he said. "Transparency here goes beyond what is in the privacy policy."

Senator Franken asked Tribble how many apps the company has removed for sharing user data without consent. Tribble noted that all these apps fixed the issue, but Franken pushed on.

"So the answer is ... zero?" Franken asked.

"Zero," Tribble answered.

Senator Chuck Schumer also grilled both Google and Apple about their policies regarding how apps are approved for their respective stores, focusing on apps that provide information about where sobriety checkpoints are located -- a way for drunk drivers to avoid such points and potentially endanger others.

“Applications that share information about sobriety checkpoints are not a violation of our content policy,” Google's Davidson responded. Tribble also noted that Apple was "examining" the situation. Neither has yet removed the offending apps.

In an odd note, Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice had another idea asked that more information be retained, to help law enforcement.

"When this information is not stored, it may be impossible for law enforcement to collect essential evidence," he said.

But it's clear that this debate is far from over.

“I still have serious doubts that these rights are being respected in law or in practice,” Franken concluded. “We need to think seriously about how to address these problems and we need to address them now. This is an urgent issue we need to be dealing with.”

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