Lawmakers press Google, Apple on location services

Representatives from Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) defended their companies' respective approaches to handling smartphone users' location information, explaining that they do not keep such data. Meanwhile, an official from the U.S. Department of Justice argued that mobile providers should be required to collect and store users' location data so that law enforcement officers could obtain evidence in criminal cases.

The diverging arguments highlight the complex nature of the mobile location-services market, where privacy advocates worry over unauthorized use of wireless subscribers' locations; law enforcement officials hope for easy access to location records; and wireless carriers and smartphone vendors work to toe the line between the two.

Sen. Al Franken (D., Minn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee, spearheaded a hearing on the topic, and said he maintains "serious doubts about whether [privacy] rights are being respected in law or in practice." He hinted Congress may take steps to enforce mobile privacy safeguards.

"Apple does not track users' location. We have never done so and have no plans to do so," countered Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology. Tribble also said location data collected from wireless towers and Wi-Fi networks "does not contain any customer information at all. It's completely anonymous."

However, Franken brought into question Google and Apple's position on third-party smartphone apps that collect users' location information. Franken noted there are no restrictions on what third parties can do with the data, and urged Google and Apple to require that apps running on their platforms display privacy policies.

In response, Google's 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 apps investigated for potential violations agreed to revise their practices.

Countering the debate was Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division at the Justice Department. Weinstein called for laws that would require mobile providers to collect and store location information about their subscribers.

"Many wireless providers do not retain records that would enable law enforcement to identify a suspect's smartphone based on the IP addresses collected by Web sites that the suspect visited," Weinstein said, according to Cnet.

The hearing was called following reports that Apple's iOS mobile operating system stores user location data in a hidden file. Apple said the collection resulted from a software bug patched last week with the release of its iOS 4.3.3 update.

For more:
- see this FierceMobileContent article
- see this Cnet article
- see this WSJ article (sub. req.)
- see this PC World article
- see this Bloomberg article

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