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Technology / TECHNOLOGY

Mobile Tracking Issue Has Lots of Congress Folk Concerned

photo of Juliana Gruenwald
April 28, 2011

The Senate Commerce Committee weighed in on the controversy over mobile tracking on Thursday, announcing it will hold a hearing on the issue next month.

The hearing will focus on “consumer protection and privacy in the mobile marketplace,” the panel said in a statement.

The issue has gained new attention in the last week after news reports stated that both Apple’s iPhone and Google’s Android mobile phone track its users’ locations.


After initially ignoring the issue, Apple released a statement on Wednesday denying that it tracks iPhone users and attributing the controversy to user confusion and its own failure to provide information quickly. Google said it obtains consent before tracking Android users’ locations.

“Reports of mobile devices tracking the location of users is just the latest in a string of concerns raised in the mobile marketplace. This committee has investigated this in the past, and it is appropriate to review it again,” Senate Commerce Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement. “Consumers deserve to know exactly what information is being collected about them, how it is being used, and should be able to say no to undesired collection of information.”

Rockefeller also questioned whether concentration in the mobile phone market is playing a role in such controversies.

The Commerce Committee has not set a firm date for the hearing and does not have witness list yet, a spokesman said. He added that he did not know if representatives from Apple or Google will be asked to testify.

The Senate Judiciary Privacy, Technology, and the Law Subcommittee also has scheduled a hearing next month on the issue. Apple and Google have both accepted invitations to testify at that hearing.

Two senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee said Thursday that answers they received about location data from the nation’s four top wireless operators raise additional questions that Congress needs to explore more deeply.

Last month, Reps. Joe Barton, R-Texas, and Edward Markey, D-Mass., co-chairmen of the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, sent letters to AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon 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 letters were prompted by a New York Times article 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.

“After thoroughly reviewing the responses from the wireless carriers, I am left with a feeling of uneasiness and uncertainty,” Barton said in a statement. “The companies informed us that customer consent before access of location data is a common practice, but the disconnect is when third-party applications come in to play.”

All four companies said they seek consent before collecting location-based information but they had differing responses when it comes to third-party firms that provide location-based applications to their mobile customers. Verizon and AT&T require third party application providers to obtain user consent before providing location-based services. T-Mobile did not address whether third party application providers get consent, and Sprint seemed to indicate the issue was out of its hands.

“While new third party applications bring many consumer benefits, there are risks too,” Sprint wrote. “And because mobile devices now are an open platform, consumers no longer can look to their trusted carrier with home they have a trusted relationship to answer all of their questions.”

Markey said all companies involved in the wireless industry must take steps to protect consumer privacy. “I will continue to examine and investigate existing privacy safeguards and propose strengthening measures when needed to ensure that consumers are aware of how their information is used and empowered to keep it private,” he said.

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