Franken's location privacy bill to return in 2013

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Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) intends to reintroduce his location privacy protection bill to the full Senate this year, presenting a challenge to developers and applications that leverage wireless network tracking methodologies, which provide information on smartphone users' precise movements.

Franken's bill was approved last month by the Senate Judiciary Committee, and a spokesman for the senator told the New York Times that Franken expects to bring the bill before the new Congress.

Part of the impetus for The Location Protection Act of 2012--also known as the Stalking Apps Bill--is the concern that mobile customers may not realize when they download particular apps that their whereabouts are being tracked in order to enable the app to work.

In addition, the senator's website says his bill "raises awareness and helps investigations of GPS stalking" and "makes it a crime to intentionally operate a stalking application to facilitate stalking." The site also states that Franken's bill is endorsed by nearly every national domestic violence and consumer group in the country. Wile the focus of Franken's bill is GPS-related tracking, it would likely impact even more precise tracking methodologies, such as Wi-Fi-based tracking, which can be used indoors to track shoppers within a store.

The bill would almost certainly have a chilling effect on mobile advertising efforts, which aim to deliver digital promotions to the smartphones of people nearing or entering a given store. Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) has argued that Franken's bill would render many apps useless and could drive free ad-supported apps to become fee-based.

Franken proposes to require app developers to obtain explicit one-time consent from users before recording the locations of their mobile devices rather than allowing apps to automatically begin tracking users' movements. His bill also requires disclosure of the advertising networks or other third parties with which apps share consumers' locations.

"People don't think about how they broadcast their locations all the time when they carry their phones. The law is just starting to catch up and think about how to treat this," Marcia Hofmann, a senior staff lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told the New York Times, whose editorial board published a column last month in support of the bill.

The issue of who owns and/or controls consumer data property rights has risen in other areas as well. The Supreme Court last January found that the government's use of GPS, which is used to power many smartphone location apps, for warrantless tracking of a suspect's car for nearly a month violated Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search and seizure.

Ironically, though federal legislators such as Franken have grown concerned about the improper use of tracking technologies in mobile phones, federal regulators' rules may have been a significant driver in making such tracking possible.

The FCC in 1999 issued E911 rules designed to promote the rapid deployment of Automatic Location Identification (ALI)-capable technology for wireless 911 calls. The rules calls for network-based solutions to ensure location accuracy of 100 meters for 67 percent of calls and 300 meters for 95 percent of calls, while handset-based solutions were required to deliver location accuracy of 50 meters for 67 percent of calls and 150 meters for 95 percent of calls.

For more:
- see this New York Times article and this column (sub req.)

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