Senator pressures Apple, Google to mandate developer privacy policies

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D., Minn.) continues his crusade to introduce new protections governing mobile data location tracking and collection, sending letters to Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) CEO Larry Page demanding that the companies' developer partners adopt formal privacy policies.

"Unfortunately, neither of your companies requires that apps on your stores have a privacy policy. As a result, a significant portion, and potentially a majority of apps, on your stores lack privacy policies," Franken writes in a letter dated May 25. "A recent study by TRUSTe and Harris Interactive found that only 19 percent of the top 340 free apps had a link to a privacy policy. A separate survey by the Wall Street Journal found that 45 of 101 top apps for iPhone and Android OS devices lacked privacy policies. And yet consumers say they want more privacy. They want more transparency and control about who is getting their information, how it is being used, and who it is being shared with."

Franken goes to admit that while requiring all apps to offer "a clear, understandable privacy policy" would not resolve most privacy concerns, "it would be a simple step that would provide users, privacy advocates and federal consumer protection authorities a minimum of information about what information an app will access and how that app will share that information with third parties." Franken's solution: Requiring all location-aware applications available for download from the App Store and/or Android Market to provide clear instructions indicating what location data is collected, how that information will be used and how it is shared with third parties.

Earlier this month, members of a U.S. Senate subcommittee are urging Congress to pass new laws awarding wireless subscribers greater control over how smartphones and applications track their location. During a hearing of the consumer protection subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Senators John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) called on lawmakers to introduce a bill regulating consumer privacy across smartphones and the web, contending regulation is necessary to prevent the inappropriate sharing of user data. Kerry added that new privacy guidelines also will foster greater consumer confidence in emerging digital platforms.

"These devices are not really phones--they are miniature computers," said Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee. "The mobile marketplace is so new, and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions." Rockefeller is also asking Apple, Google and the Association for Competitive Technology trade association to demonstrate that their applications are in compliance with children's online privacy law.

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.

Apple said the iPhone data collection resulted from a software bug patched earlier this month with the release of its iOS 4.3.3 update. 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.

Last week, Washington, D.C.-based think tank the Future of Privacy Forum introduced, a new website designed to help developers provide users with privacy protections. Built with the support of developers, platform providers and tech companies including Google, AT&T, Facebook, Intel, Zynga and the Center for Democracy and Technology, the hub features emerging standards, best practices, privacy guidelines, platform and application store requirements alongside relevant laws and regulatory guidance.

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