Apple, Google urged to police developer location data use

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) appeared last week before the U.S. Senate to defend their mobile device location tracking policies, but lawmakers expressed skepticism over whether the companies are adequately protecting user privacy. Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee spearheading the hearing, said he maintains "serious doubts about whether [privacy] rights are being respected in law or in practice" and hinted Congress may take steps to enforce mobile privacy safeguards: "My wireless companies, Apple and Google, and my apps all get my location or something very close to it," Franken said. "We need to address this issue now, as mobile devices are only going to get more popular."

Apple was the target of most of the subcommittee's scrutiny following reports that products running its iOS mobile operating system store user location data in a hidden file. Apple said the collection resulted from a software bug patched earlier this month with the release of its iOS 4.3.3 update: "Apple does not track users' location. We have never done so and have no plans to do so," said Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology, echoing a statement the company made a few weeks back. Tribble also said that location data collected from wireless towers and Wi-Fi networks "does not contain any customer information at all. It's completely anonymous."

Franken additionally turned his attention to Apple and Google's efforts to police their mobile developer partners' efforts to collect and leverage location data, stating there are no restrictions on what third parties can do with the data and urging Google and Apple to require that apps running on their platforms display privacy policies. Google director of public policy Alan Davidson said the company would consider implementing such a policy, while Trimble said Apple already requires developers to sign a contract agreeing to inform consumers how they plan to use their data. Under questioning, Trimble said Apple has never expelled an iOS application from its App Store for violating the agreement, adding that all developers investigated for potential violations agreed to revise their practices.

The furor over location tracking exploded last month after British researchers Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden reported that iPhone and iPod devices had recorded location and time-stamp data since the mid-2010 release of the iOS 4 software update, effectively creating a comprehensive log of all user movement and activities during that time. Apple broke its silence on the matter several days later, explaining that iOS devices are in fact gathering location information to maintain a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in the user's vicinity, enabling an iPhone to more rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Apple added that calculating a phone's whereabouts via only GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes, while its approach can slash the process to a few seconds.

iOS 4.3.3--compatible with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch and the iPad and iPad 2--reduces the size of the location database cache from up to a year to about a week, halts cache backup to iTunes and deletes the cache entirely when users disable their device's Location Services feature.

Apple currently faces two consumer lawsuits over the location tracking controversy. The first suit, filed Apr. 22 on behalf of iOS users Vikram Ajjampur and William Devito in federal court in Tampa, Fla., contends that Apple is secretly recording the movements of iPhone and iPad users and seeks a judge's order barring the practice. Ajjampur and Devito are also requesting refunds for their iOS product purchases, contending they would have steered clear of Apple devices had they known about the potential for location data tracking. The second suit, filed last week in the U.S. District Court for the District of Puerto Rico on behalf of Lymaris M. Rivera Diaz, clams Apple, The Weather Channel and Pandora Media intentionally intercepted personally identifying information and transmitted that data, along with location updates, to third-party advertisers.

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