WASHINGTON – Google and Apple said Tuesday that they are not using data to follow users,despite recent news that their mobile devices often track users’ movements.
In the first hearing of a new subcommittee – the privacy,technology and the law subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee – members encouraged Google and Apple representatives to do a better job of informing the public about privacy risks.
“Consumers are repeatedly surprised about the data that these apps can access,” said Ashkan Soltani about downloading applications to mobile devices. Soltani is an independent privacy researcher and consultant.
Sen. Al Franken,D-Minn.,the subcommittee chair,cited a December 2010 investigation by The Wall Street Journal that examined 101 “apps” for iPhone and Android phones. Many were discovered to have transmitted a phone’s location without the user’s permission. Personal information,including age and gender,were sold to other companies.
“I love that I can use Google Maps for free,” Franken said,“but I think there’s a balance we need to strike. Consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them.”
Justin Brookman,director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy,said companies can do whatever they want with data as long as they do not violate what they promised.
Google maintains an “open access” approach by notifying users before they can download an app that needs location access,said Alan Davidson,director of public policy for the Americas at Google.
“We choose not to be a gate keeper,” Davidson said. “We choose to use the power of the device itself to control privacy.”
Guy “Bud” Tribble,vice president of software technology at Apple,said the company stores the location of hotspots and cell towers but does not keep user data.
“Apple is strongly committed to giving customers choice and control over data,” he said.
Customers can choose to opt out of location services.
Federal law governs the privacy of health care information,education records and financial records,but not data shared online or via mobile devices.
Franken said the threat to privacy is greater for Americans now then it has been in the past.
At the end of the hearing,Franken said,“I still have serious doubts that those rights are being respected.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer,D-N.Y.,said that some apps “endanger public safety.” He referred to Buzzed,an application that allows users to avoid police drunk-driving checkpoints.
He asked for a response within a month about whether Google or Apple will pull the app.
Davidson said Google prefers a level of openness and that the app doesn’t “violate the terms of service.”
Tribble said Apple is examining the situation,and if the app encourages “people to break the law,then our policy is to pull them.”
Reach reporter Danyelle Gary at [email protected] or 202-326-9867
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