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Mobile Privacy and the Responsibility of Communications Service Providers

At a hearing held by the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law on “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy”, witnesses were queried on how location-based applications are storing and sharing consumer data.  The senators asked how current industry practices might make consumer information vulnerable to misuse.  The hearing was held at the request of Subcommittee Chair Senator Al Franken (Dem-Minn) who called on Apple and Google to appear in the hearing on consumer privacy in response to recent allegations of inappropriate monitoring and tracking.  In his opening statement, he emphasized that the “subcommittee is about addressing a fundamental shift that we’ve seen in the past 40-50 years about who has information and what they’re doing with it.”  He explained that concern has shifted from protecting private information from abuses by the government to information that is increasingly being collected and used by corporations and private entities.

Jessica Rich, Deputy Director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said that companies should adopt a “privacy by design” approach by building privacy protections into their everyday business practices such as not collecting or retaining more data than they need to provide a requested service or transaction.  She also testified that companies should provide simpler and more streamlined privacy choices to consumers.

Jason Weinstein, Deputy Assistant Attorney General in the Criminal Division at the Department of Justice, said that as mobile devices and services offered to users continue to expand “it will be important to distinguish between those cases that warrant criminal prosecution and those that may be best resolved through regulatory action.” 

The representatives from both Apple and Google defended their companies’ current practices for protecting location services data.  Guy “Bud” Tribble, Vice President of Software Technology for Apple, said, “We do not share personally identifiable information . . . without our customers’ consent.  We do not track users’ locations and we have no plans to do so.  He also restated the company’s position that the computer maker is using the devices to create a crowd-sourced database of WiFi hotspot and cell tower data.

“All of Google’s location services are opt-in only,” said Alan Davidson, Director of Public Policy for the Americas at Google.  Davidson defended Google’s privacy policies by saying that they “provide services that range from helping parents send Amber Alerts about missing children to aiding people who want to flee natural disasters.”

Justin Brookman, Director of the Project on Consumer Privacy at the Center for Democracy and Technology, told lawmakers that existing electronic consumer privacy laws do not offer consumers meaningful protection.  He testified that companies including Google and Twitter have been sanctioned by the Federal Trade Commission for not following their own stated privacy policies. However, that is “as far as the FTC enforcement can go.”  “The bar is still very low,” Brookman said. “It’s not possible to figure out how data is being stored by apps and shared.

Next steps

While this was a fact-finding hearing, Sen. Franken said he may introduce legislation of his own on mobile privacy that would require companies who collect users’ personal data to store it securely and make a “good faith” effort to ensure it can’t be hacked.

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