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Friday, January 6, 2012

Is your Computer or Smart Phone Tracking Where You Are?

        Al Franken, a Democratic U.S. senator from Minnesota, has begun congressional hearings on the issue of consumers’ locations being tracked by their computers and smart phones. His committee, the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, began holding hearings in mid-May to explore what legal protections currently apply to the collection of location data and what protections might be needed in the future.
        Senator Franken’s hearing comes after two British researchers and the Wall Street Journal revealed in April that Apple's popular iPhone has been storing device-location data for up to a year. Google also recently acknowledged that phones running its Android software store some GPS location data for a short time. Neither company has responded to questions from the media as to why such data are collected and how such data are used. 
        Senator Franken started a May 10 hearing by stating, "The answer to this problem is not ending location-based services. No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products or doing the incredible things that you do. What today is about is trying to find a balance between all those wonderful benefits and the public's right to privacy." Among the witnesses testifying at the hearing were executives from Apple and Google. Senators questioned the executives as to why iPhones and handheld wireless devices running Google's Android software store location data that can be used to track where their owners have been.
        “The same technology that has given us smartphones, tablets, and cell phones has also allowed these devices to gather extremely sensitive information about users, including detailed records of their daily movements and location,” Franken explained. He noted his hearing is a “first step in making certain that federal laws protecting consumers' privacy—particularly when it comes to mobile devices—keep pace with advances in technology.”
        Apple Software Technology Vice President Guy Tribble testified that the company collects information on cell towers and WiFi hotspots to help get a lock on GPS more quickly when people are using iOS location services. However, he also noted that Apple has fixed the “bug” that continued to record the user’s location even after the user had turned the location services off.
        Earlier, Apple CEO Steve Jobs claimed in a letter to a customer that Apple does not “track anyone” and Google executives denied that information sent to the company was tied to specific users.
Two distinct perspectives are at play here. First, manufacturers are plunging ahead deploying cutting-edge technologies based on market information that consumers are clamoring for this new technology. But then there are concerns expressed by government regulators and consumer advocates that technology advances are quickly outpacing privacy laws and regulations.
        I agree that users should be able to decide for themselves what services they want.  However, I also believe manufacturers should effectively communicate with consumers about the types of user information they collect and should then allow the consumer to opt-in rather than opt-out of such information gathering.
Where do you stand on this privacy issue? This could make for interesting conversation around your dinner table.
BillBill Oemichen is president/CEO of the Wisconsin Federation of Cooperatives and served as the state’s top consumer protection official from 1996–2001.
From the Wisconsin Energy Cooperative News June 2011 Issue

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