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Apple and Google wriggle on US Senate hot seat

Hearing on privacy, patents, iPhones, drunks

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When questioned by US senators at a hearing on digital privacy, Apple and Google execs spent most of their time successfully bobbing and weaving, but were thrown off-balance when asked about location-grabbing patents and drunk-driving apps.

Tuesday morning's hearing – "Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy" – was called by Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to get input from industry and industry watchdogs as to the state of digital privacy, and to begin discussions about possible government regulations.

"When I was growing up," Franken said in his opening statement, "and people talked about protecting their privacy, they talked about protecting it from the government. They talked about unreasonable searches and seizures, about keeping the government out of our families, out of our bedrooms. They talked about 'Is the government trying to keep tabs on the books I read and the rallies I attend?'"

A fresh look needs to be taken at digital privacy, Franken suggested, because although there are clear laws on the books intended to keep the government from overreaching, things are far more murky in the corporate sphere, where "large corporations that are obtaining and storing increasingly large amounts of our information."

"The Fourth Amendment doesn't apply to corporations," Franken said of the differences between government and corporate powers, "and the Freedom of Information Act doesn't apply to Silicon Valley."

In a slap at Apple's recent iPhone-tracking imbroglio, Franken provided an example of what he characterized as a lack of transparency in corporate information gathering. "If it came out that the [department of motor vehicles] was creating a detailed file on every single trip you'd taken in the past year, do you think they could go one whole week with out answering a single question from a reporter?"

The problem, Franken said, is that the legal framework surrounding digital privacy is both weak and murky, without clearly defined regulations on the collecting, share, and selling of users' personal information.

Apple VP of software technology Bud Tribble, when questioned about Cupertino's attitude toward privacy, insisted that Apple was on the side of the angels. "First, Apple is deeply committed to protecting the privacy of all of our customers. We've adopted a single, comprehensive privacy policy for all of our products," he said.

"We do not share personally identifiable information with third parties for their marketing purposes without our customers' explicit consent," he continued, "and we require all third-party application developers to agree to specific restrictions protecting our customers' privacy."

Carefully choosing his words, Tribble added: "Second, Apple does not track users' locations. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

Exactly what is meant by "track user locations," however, is the hard nut. The company's April 27 "Apple Q&A on Location Data" noted: "The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone..."

As pointed out by one witness at today's hearing, however, that "one hundred miles" statement might be a bit disingenuous. When asked his opinion of Apple's statement that the company doesn't track individual users, Ashkan Soltani, identified as an "Independent Researcher and Consultant" and who has researched web privacy for The Wall Streeet Journal, said: "In many cases, the location that this data refers to is actually the location of your device or somewhere near it. While it's true that in some rural areas this can be up to a hundred miles away, in practice – for the average customer, the average consumer – it's actually much closer, in the order of about a hundred feet, according to a developer of this technology, Skyhook."

Google director of public policy Alan Davidson also answered questions on location information. "We use information where we can provide value to our users and we apply the principles of transparency, control and security," he told the assembled senators. "We are particularly sensitive when it comes to location information."

According to Davidson, "We believe that this approach is essential for location services: highly transparent information for users about what is being collected, opt-in choice before location information is collected, and high security standards to anonymize and protect information. Our hope is that this becomes the standard for the broader industry."

Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), however, wasn't easily mollified. In the time-honored senatorial tradition of using props during a hearing, he waved a copy of a 2008 Google patent application, "Wireless network-based location approximation", when grilling Davidson about the Street View Wi-Fi slurp uncovered last year.

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