Online marketers are tracking you when you surf the Web but could your wireless operator be tracking you as you move around town with your phone?
That’s the question the co-chairmen of the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus are asking.
In letters to the top four wireless carriers on Tuesday, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Edward Markey, D-Mass., both senior members of the Energy and Commerce Committee, are seeking answers to a series of questions related to what information the companies collect about the location of their users and how it is being used.
Their concerns stem from a recent New York Times story that highlighted the practices of Deutsche Telekom, the parent company of T-Mobile USA, and how it tracked one of its customers as he moved throughout his day.
“Location, location, location may be the favored currency of the real estate industry, but it is sensitive information for mobile phone users that must be safeguarded,” Markey said in a statement. “Collecting, storing, and disclosing a consumer's exact whereabouts for commercial purposes without their express permission is unacceptable and violates current law.”
Markey noted that a provision he authored in the Communications Act requires telecommunications firms to obtain the consent of their customers before disclosing, using, or accessing location information for commercial purposes.
In their letters to the wireless firms, the lawmakers sought answers by April 19 to several questions, such as what personally identifiable data do the companies collect from their customers; how is it collected; what mechanisms do the firms use to identify the location of their customers; and do they sell or use for marketing purposes personally identifiable data they collect.
Aides to both lawmakers said they want to see what information they get before deciding how to proceed next on the issue. The lawmakers announced in late February that they planned to hold a caucus hearing on the industry practices surrounding online privacy, though they have yet to set a date.
Concerns over what personal information businesses are collecting and how it is being used have gained new attention with the rise of online behavioral advertising, which involves tracking consumers as they surf the Web and targeting ads at them based on their personal preferences. Many of these same data-collection issues are now migrating to mobile-Web surfing, given the growth in the number of Americans who use their mobile phones to go online instead of using a desktop or laptop.
Members of both the House and Senate are crafting privacy bills that would require online firms to provide more information about what data they collect and how they use it and to give consumers more choices about whether they want to participate in such activities. Markey is working on a children's privacy-tracking bill, while Barton has expressed interest in working with other House lawmakers on a broader privacy bill.