Location, Location, Location: Congress Steamed Over Mobile Device Tracking

As far as privacy-related storms go, the current one sweeping the industry is unusually fast moving. In the days since researchers Peter Warden and Alasdair Allan published the unsettling discovery that Apple’s iOS could track users’ movements, timestamp them, and then send the information to Apple, the following has occurred: 1) Google has been outed as well, spurred on by a not-so-subtle tip provided by Apple CEO Steve Jobs; 2) investigations into the processes of Windows Phone 7, Nokia and other smartphone devices immediately commenced; 3) a lawsuit was filed against Apple in Tampa, Fla., seeking class action status; 4) probes have been launched in France, Germany, Italy and South Korea; and now 5) Congress is getting involved.

Congress has been particularly attentive to privacy issues in recent months, so this is not surprising. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., and Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., have sent letters to Apple, and Markey has called for an investigation.

Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, signed letters to Google, Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, RIM and HP, posing such questions as “What location data do devices running your operating system track, use, store, or share?” and asking why they do so. Republicans Greg Walden, Lee Terry, Mary Bono Mack and Marsha Blackburn cosigned the letters. Responses are expected by May 9.

The E-Commerce Times’ calls to most of the principals were not returned in time for publication. However, in a statement provided by Chris Gaither, a Google spokesperson said that the company gives users “notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.” [*Correction – April 27, 2011]

Tracking and Transmitting

Briefly, the issue at hand is that research reports have found that devices supported by Apple, Google and other mobile OS providers regularly collect users’ locations.

In the case of Google, a security researcher showed that an HTC Android phone was collecting location data almost continuously and then transmitting it to Google through the course of day. Other data the device reportedly sent included name, unique phone identifier and signal strength of nearby WiFi networks.

Apple’s iPhone has similar capabilities, along with an alarming lack of security safeguarding the timestamped data. Essentially, anyone with a simple program can access the data, said security researchers Warden and Allan.

Where the matter will end is unclear. In the immediate term, at least, the greatest danger the mobile OS industry is facing comes in the form of those inquiries from Washington.

“This is the ramp-up to a presidential election year,” noted Rob Enderle of the Enderle Group. “Things change when people are looking to get elected or re-elected, and it does appear as though privacy is trending to be a topical issue.”

By contrast, the lawsuit will face an uphill battle to get class-action status and even if it does, it will be difficult to prove — much less quantify — damage, Enderle told the E-Commerce Times.

The global investigations could well be significant. Microsoft, which has not-so-fond memories of its experiences with the European Commission, can attest to that — but those investigations tend to be slower-paced.

Of all the companies that are in the spotlight right now — which is just about every mobile provider — Google has the most to lose, Enderle said. “It has already been identified as committing significant privacy violations both here and in Europe. Officials will be all the less inclined to cut them any slack.”

Consumers React?

Aside from the lawsuit in Florida — filed by two residents who say they wouldn’t have purchased their devices if they had known about the tracking activities — outrage among consumers seems to be strangely muted, said Vlad Zachary, cofounder of That is likely due to the location-based apps that people willingly download on their devices.

“There are already thousands of smartphone applications that base their services on the fact that they know your location. Well-known examples are utilities like Gas-buddy and Around-me,” he told the E-Commerce Times.

“There is very little chance of a consumer backlash against this kind of tracking, Tim ‘TK’ Keanini, CTO of nCircle predicted. “In fact, most companies already disclose what they do in a long, involved end-user license agreement that most people never read, and if they do read it, they don’t read carefully.”

Where companies are getting this info wrong is in the lack of transparency, he continued. “In general, consumers are more than willing to share information. They just want to know more about how the information is collected, how it is stored and how it will be used.”

*ECT News Network editor’s note – April 27, 2011: Our original published version of this story stated that none of the principals had replied to the E-Commerce Times’ requests for comments, omitting Google’s response, which did arrive in time for publication.

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