2:23pm

Tue May 10, 2011
Digital Life

Senators Grill Phone Execs On Mobile Privacy

Originally published on Wed May 11, 2011 8:37 am

Executives from the biggest brands in mobile computing were called to Capitol Hill Tuesday to clear up concerns that they have tracked and stored data about their customers' whereabouts, in some cases without their permission.

Apple and Google defended the location technology in iPhones and Android-software-based phones that makes some of their services possible for consumers and advertisers.

While the companies say they've taken precautions to protect privacy, lawmakers are looking at further ways to shield consumers.

There are already laws protecting privacy online, the bulk of which come from the Electronic Communications Privacy Act. But that law was passed in the mid-1980s. The latest devices were reportedly collecting and storing a cache of information about mobile customers' movements.

Researchers and regulators worry that customers don't understand how the data can be exploited by hackers and stalkers.

Jessica Rich, of the Consumer Protection Office of the Federal Trade Commission, testified that an example might be insurance companies looking to spy on consumers' bad habits.

"You can also know what church somebody has gone to," she added, "what political meeting they have gone to, when and where they walk to and from school, so that is sensitive data that requires special protection," she says.

Apple says it has fixed a bug that kept on tracking even after the customer switched off the location services, and in the future it will keep less of the information, and what it does keep will be encrypted.

The company's vice president for software technology, Bud Tribble, tried to dispel the Senate panel's concerns that the company was watching individual customers.

"I want to reassure you that Apple was never tracking an individual's location from the information residing in that cache," Tribble said. "Furthermore, the location data that was seen on the iPhone was not the past or present location of the iPhone but rather the location of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location."

Google executive Alan Davidson answered Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who had concerns about the phones' making it possible for third-party apps to gather information from the cache.

"We don't go after trucking companies because they happen to carry faulty goods. We go after manufacturers of those goods and I would say we are trying to strike the right balance," said Davidson.

"You do go after the trucking company if the company knew what it was carrying," Whitehouse responded. "Google was in a better position to know what is carried as a professional company that specIalizes and has vast resources than a 17-year-old who has been told by his friend this is a cool app to load."

Also testifying were small software development companies who warned that more regulation will hurt their chances of getting their products to market.

But the conversation is only beginning. Already there are two bills in the House seeking more privacy protections on mobile devices, and in the Senate, lawmakers say they are looking to update the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Executives from the biggest brands in mobile computing were summoned to Capitol Hill today. Lawmakers peppered Google and Apple executives with questions about how they track their customers and store data about their whereabouts with or without permission. The executives argued that their location technology makes their services popular. But members of Congress reacted with skepticism, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.

AUDIE CORNISH: Laura Pollack(ph) is a homemaker visiting Washington from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and she's only too happy to show off her smartphone...

Ms. LAURA POLLACK: OK. There you go. See that blue thing? It's showing us exactly where we are.

CORNISH: ...which can pinpoint her every move.

Ms. POLLACK: Shows us in the Capitol.

CORNISH: It shows you right in the building.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. POLLACK: Yup.

CORNISH: At what point is too close?

Ms. POLLACK: That's a little too close, yeah. Yeah. But I wonder where the information is going. I don't - I really don't know how secure it is.

CORNISH: And that's a problem for researchers and regulators who worry that customers don't understand how the information can be exploited. It could be accessed by anyone from computer hackers to stalkers to third parties like insurance companies looking to spy on their customers' bad habits.

Jessica Rich with the Consumer Protection Office in the Federal Trade Commission was among those who testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee at a hearing on privacy.

Ms. JESSICA RICH (Deputy Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection): If it's collected over time, you can also know what church somebody has gone to, what political meeting they've gone to, when and where they walk to and from school. So that is sensitive data that requires special protection.

CORNISH: Apple says they've fixed a bug that kept on tracking even after the customer switched off the location services. And in the future, it will keep less of the data, and what it does, it will keep encrypted. Beyond that, the company's VP for software technology, Bud Tribble, tried to dispel fears that the company tracked identifying information.

Mr. BUD TRIBBLE (Vice President of Software Technology, Apple): I want to reassure you that Apple was never tracking an individual's actual location from the information residing in that cache. Furthermore, the location data that were seen on the iPhone was not the past or present location of the iPhone but rather the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location.

CORNISH: Apple wasn't the only one facing scrutiny. Google executive Alan Davidson also sought to reassure lawmakers like Senate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who had concerns about third party apps gathering or selling information from the devices. Davidson tried to make an analogy, but Whitehouse wasn't buying it.

Mr. ALAN DAVIDSON (Director of Public Policy, Google): We don't go after trucking companies because they happen to carry faulty goods. We go after the manufacturers of those goods. And I would just say we're trying to strike the right balance.

Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): You do go after the trucking company if the company knew what it was carrying.

Mr. DAVIDSON: And I think this is...

Sen. WHITEHOUSE: Google is in a better position to know what is being carried as a professional company that specializes and has vast resources than a 17-year-old who's been told by his friend that this is a cool app to load.

CORNISH: Caught in the crossfire are representatives from app makers, small software development companies who worry that more regulation will hobble their efforts to get their products out there. There'll be plenty for them to watch on the Hill in coming weeks as lawmakers in the House and Senate are writing new legislative language to add privacy protections on mobile devices.

Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.