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US lawmakers grill Apple on location tracking changes

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US lawmakers are grilling Steve Jobs over recent tweaks to Apple's privacy policy allowing the company and its partners to collect and share "precise location data" of all iTunes and App Store customers.

US Representatives Edward J. Markey and Joe Barton, the co-chairs of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent a letter to the Apple CEO on Thursday, a few days after the updated privacy policy was reported. In it, they called on Jobs to explain how the new terms don't run afoul of Section 222 of the Federal Communications Act (PDF), which prohibits the sharing of customer location information without the permission of the user.

"It is our understanding that Apple's consumers cannot use newly-purchased iPads, iPhones, Apple computers or purchase products for existing Apple products from the iTunes music store unless they accept the revised terms and conditions and include agreeing to the collection and sharing of geographical location data," they wrote (PDF). "Given the limited ability of Apple users to opt out of the revised policy and still be able to take advantage of the features of their Apple products, we are concerned about the impact the collection of such data could have on the privacy of Apple's customers."

The lawmakers peppered Jobs with nine questions, including the following:

  • What internal procedures are in place to ensure that any location data is stored "anonymously in a form that does not personally identify" individual consumers?
  • Please explain in detail why Apple decided to begin collecting location data at this time, and how it intends to use the data.

They're good questions, to be sure, but the list is notable for the obvious question that was left out: How long will Apple and its partners hold on to information about the exact whereabouts of so many people?

The precise language of the update Apple's privacy policy reads:

To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.

Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the MobileMe "Find My iPhone" feature, require your personal information for the feature to work.

Yes, Apple makes it easy to turn off location tracking, but to do so makes key offerings of Apple devices unavailable.

The letter "respectfully" requests a response by July 12 — and it will be interesting to see if the perpetually taciturn Apple will be any more forthcoming with Representatives Markey and Barton than it has been over the past week with customers and reporters seeking the specifics of the policy. ®

Bootnote

If the name "Joe Barton" rings a bell, it may be because this relatively obscure east-Texas congressman has been in the news recently for apologizing to BP CEO Tony Hayward for the "$20 billion shakedown" that the beleaguered oilman suffered at the hands of President Obama.

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