New Senate Subcommittee Addresses Mobile Technologies and Privacy: Apple, Google to Appear

Funny thing about the U.S. Constitution: it address the activities of government officials and agencies — including restraints on those activities — but not the activities of commercial business and individuals. The latter are left to federal, state, and local laws.

So, when the government conducts warrantless surveillance using GPS, the issue may come before the U.S. Supreme Court or state and federal judges at other levels. If private companies do it, they may end up at a congressional hearing.

Funny thing about the U.S. Constitution: it address the activities of government officials and agencies — including restraints on those activities — but not the activities of commercial business and individuals. The latter are left to federal, state, and local laws.

So, when the government conducts warrantless surveillance using GPS, the issue may come before the U.S. Supreme Court or state and federal judges at other levels. If private companies do it, they may end up at a congressional hearing.

The discovery this week that Apple and Google both track longitude and latitude and other location data — using GPS, WiFi, and cellular network-based techniques — on individual smartphones, pads, and linked computers without the knowledge of the user has caused a media furor and congressional concern.

Two researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, released their study of Apple’s surreptitious iPhone data collection on May 20 at the Where 2.0 location conference in Santa Clara, California. The Wall Street Journal later found that Google also gathered location information from their Android smartphones. 

The resulting controversy will be one of the first topics addressed by a new U.S. Senate judicial subcommittee, Privacy, Technology and the Law, that was formed in February to review just such issues.

The first meeting of the committee will be on May 10. The subject will be "Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphone, Tablets, Cellphones and Your Privacy."

Subcommitee chair Al Franken (D-Min) wrote a letter to Apple on April 20 asking the company to explain their location data collection practices and to attend the subcommittee meeting.

Google CEO Larry Page and Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Apple have been urged to attend by Senate Judiciary Committee chair Patrick Leahy (D-Vt), who sent letters to both of them on April 27. Leahy was the force behind the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) and is now leading the charge to update it.

In his letter, Leahy said "The collection and storage of sensitive location information has serious implications regarding the privacy rites and personal safety of American consumers [and they] deserve to know the potential risks . . ."


Google spokesman Chris Gaither said in an email to Inside GNSS that the company has accepted the invitation to testify at the subcommittee meeting. "We look forward to engaging with policymakers about how we protect our users’ mobile privacy," he said. "All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user." He also said that Google "anonymizes and aggregates" Wi Fi network location data transmitted by Chrome browser and Google Toolbar IE users.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs confirmed that Apple "looked forward to testifying" at the May 10 meeting in an April 27 interview with All Things Digital. "We haven’t been tracking anyone," he said. The iPhone location data files that started the controversy earlier this week "were basically files we have built through anonymous, crowdsourced
information that we collect from the tens of millions of iPhones out
there,” Jobs said.

According to the Senate website, other confirmed witnesses include officials from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission; Ashkan Soltani, independent privacy researcher and consultant; and Justin Brookman, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology‘s Project on Consumer Privacy.

The subcommittee will oversee laws and policies that concern collecting, protecting, using and disseminating commercial information about people by the private sector, including online behavioral advertising, social networking and other online privacy issues.

It will enforce and implement privacy laws and policies for identifiable personal information and will encourage transparent and innovative privacy standards that keep up with the new technologies of our information age.

The hearing will take place at 10 a.m. in room 226 of the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington D.C. and will also be webcast from the hearing website.

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