After weeks of criticism over their privacy policies, Google and Apple faced mostly gentle questioning at a congressional hearing on Tuesday.
The hearing was the first for the new Senate Judiciary Privacy, Technology, and the Law Subcommittee, chaired by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who said privacy breaches are a serious problem but went out of his way to praise Google and Apple.
Franken questioned whether the Federal Trade Commission should investigate Apple for deceptive practices and he cast doubt on Apple's claim that the data it collects can't be used to track individuals.
He said that his goal is to raise public awareness about privacy issues and that legislation may be necessary to prevent misuse of personal information on mobile devices.
But new legislation shouldn’t be coming any time soon, said ranking member Tom Coburn, R-Okla. “We need a whole lot more information before we come to any conclusions,” he said.
To that end, Tuesday’s hearing was largely informational, but Franken’s kid-glove treatment didn’t prevent panel members from airing a range of other concerns, with senators pressing witnesses on everything from cybersecurity to offensive smartphone apps.
Franken called Apple and Google “brilliant” and said he does not want to stop location-based services.
Rather, Franken called for a balance between useful services like Google Maps and privacy. He said current laws are not doing enough to protect users' privacy. “We have some protections here and there, but we’re not even close to protecting all of the information that we need to,” Franken said in his opening statement. “I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them.”
Google defended its privacy policies, saying they provide services that range from helping parents send Amber Alerts about missing children to aiding people who want to flee natural disasters.
But the company also supports legislation to help protect privacy online—so long as it is applied equally to all providers, the company said in prepared testimony submitted for Tuesday’s hearing.
Google, Apple, and other companies are under fire after a series of news reports showed that devices using their software and hardware can track and store people’s movements.
“Congress has a vital role to play in encouraging responsible privacy and security practices, both by bringing attention to these issues and through appropriate legislation," Alan Davidson, Google's director of public policy, said in prepared testimony.
Some of the questioning Tuesday veered off topic.
Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., questioned why Google and Apple haven’t removed apps that are designed to help drunk drivers evade police checkpoints. He has pressed the companies to block such apps. “Wouldn’t you agree that this is helping people break the law?” he asked.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., took the opportunity to grill Davidson on the so-called "Wi-Spy" incident, in which Google’s Street View vans collected a range of personal information from unprotected Wi-Fi networks.
Blumenthal, who investigated the scandal during his days as Connecticut attorney general, questioned why Google is trying to patent technology designed to collect the kind of information that it denied wanting to collect.
Davidson said the company never intended to collect the personal information and said Google didn’t do anything illegal. After the hearing a Google spokesman said the patent application is "entirely unrelated software code used to collect WiFi information with Street View cars."
The range of questioning reflected the growing impact of new technologies and of companies like Google and Apple.
Last month, researchers discovered an unencrypted file on Apple iPhones that contained a log of users’ locations. The phone continued to collect this information even when users turned location tracking off.
Guy Tribble, Apple's vice president for software technology, said a software bug caused the phone to keep collecting the data and has since been fixed. “Apple does not track users’ locations,” he said. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”
Several online privacy bills are in the works.
Davidson attacked the Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which governs government access to stored communications, as outdated. He said it needs updating to reflect cloud computing, for instance.
Davidson also defended the tracking software.
“Mobile location data can even save lives,” he said. That includes tracking missing children, he said.
"Within a few hours of the Japan earthquake, for example, we saw a massive spike in search queries originating from Hawaii related to 'tsunami.' We placed a location-based alert on the Google homepage for tsunami alerts in the Pacific and ran similar promotions across News, Maps, and other services," Davidson added.
Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jason Weinstein testified that the Department of Justice is working to prosecute criminals who steal or misuse personal information. But, Weinstein said, private data can be used to track down criminals and he called for internet service providers to keep information longer.