Representatives of Apple and Google denied that they are collecting the personal information of owners of smartphones running their operating systems, but a U.S. senator questioned whether those denials were accurate during a hearing Tuesday.
Apple appears to have made conflicting statements about the location information its smartphones and tablets collect, Senator Al Franken, a Minnesota Democrat, said during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy and technology subcommittee.
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, in a response to a recent controversy about smartphone tracking, said the company's collection of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell tower locations "are not telling you anything about your location," Franken noted. Yet, Apple has also said the collected information will "help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location," he said.
"It doesn't appear that both of these statements could be true at the same time," Franken added.
The anonymous data Apple collects doesn't contain any information about individual customers, said Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology. However, when that information is downloaded to an iPhone, the smartphone can pinpoint its own location, he said.
The Apple database is "only about the cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots," Tribble said.
Both Apple and Google are releasing "confusing" information about what location data they collect, Franken said. "They both said, 'Yes, we're getting location, but it's not your location,'" he said. "Whose location is it?"
In many cases, the location information smartphones collect, outside of GPS, can be accurate to within 100 feet of the device, said Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy and security researcher. Using Wi-Fi and cell-phone location databases, Soltani's smartphone was able to pinpoint his location within 20 feet in a Senate office building, he said.
"Depending on how you want to slice it, I would consider that my location," Soltani said. "It's really difficult to call this stuff anonymous. Making these claims is not really sincere."
Franken also questioned whether Apple could be the subject of a U.S. Federal Trade Commission enforcement action for continuing to collect location information after telling customers it would not collect location information if they turned off the option in their phone settings.
The continued collection of location information was a "bug" that Apple has fixed in the iOS, Tribble said.
Senators suggested new laws may be needed to govern the collection of data over mobile phones, even though Google and Apple both have privacy requirements for application providers. Currently, the sharing of location information from mobile operators and apps providers to third parties is a "wild West" with few restrictions in place, said Senator Richard Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat.
But Congress should be careful about creating new restrictions, particularly for small application developers who are enjoying a renaissance because of smartphones, said Jonathan Zuck, president of the Association for Competitive Technology, a trade group representing many small and midsized IT firms.
Lawmakers should look at privacy in a holistic manner and not target smartphone developers, 85 percent of which are small businesses, Zuck said. Small developers need to share information with third parties to support their business models, he said.
"To focus on a particular type of data collection in a particularly new market would necessarily discriminate against the small businesses that are responsible for so much economic growth in the mobile sector, leaving larger players untouched," Zuck added.
U.S. residents seem to be more concerned about the multiple major data breaches at large companies than about mobile apps collecting some location data, Zuck added. Recent data breaches at Sony, Epsilon and other companies are "really causing the concern and fear among customers, not the prospect of getting one more customized ad to their phone," he said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is email@example.com.