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Pandora subpoenaed over privacy of iPhone, Android apps

Part of industry-wide dragnet

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A federal grand jury has subpoenaed online radio service Pandora for documents related to the privacy of smartphone apps it offers for Apple's iPhone and Google's Android operating system.

The document demand, which was made earlier this year, was part of a larger set of subpoenas issued on an industry-wide basis to publishers of smartphone apps, Pandora said in a filing issued Monday with the Securities and Exchange Commission. The California-based company doesn't believe it's the target of the investigation, the filing said.

The revelation came as The New York Times reported that federal prosecutors in New Jersey are investigating whether smartphone apps have been illegally collecting information about handset users without proper disclosures. The probe, according to an unnamed person familiar with the matter, is examining whether app makers provided adequate legal notice before tracking information such as the user's geographic whereabouts and the unique identifier of their phone.

The investigation is the latest sign of unease about the wealth of personal details being swept up by online services eager to deliver advertisements targeted to specific users. In early December, the Federal Trade Commission recommended consumers be given a “do not track” option that prevents websites and advertisers from compiling data about their web-browsing habits. A few weeks later, Apple was slapped with a lawsuit alleging that it allowed iOS applications to provide advertisers with sensitive user information that's supposed to remain private.

A large number of applications that run on Apple's iOS collect serial numbers that uniquely identify the hardware device, according to a study issued in October that warned that the practice could compromise users' privacy. More recently, tens of thousands of users of smartphones running Android downloaded apps from Google's apps Market that secretly commandeered their handsets.

Both Apple and Google have defended the privacy protections offered by the iOS and Android. If reports about the grand jury investigation are correct, the world may soon have a large body of evidence proving or debunking these claims. ®

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