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Data identifying mobile phone users' locations should count as personal data and receive a high level of protection, the EU's data protection watchdogs will tell the European Commission, according to a newspaper report.

If the Commission adopts the recommendation, provision for the protection of location-revealing data could be written in to the Commission's revised Data Protection Directive later this year.

Mobile networks record location data, but in the UK the information is only supposed to be available to law enforcement authorities through a court order obtained under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).

The New York Times reported an EU official as having said that the Article 29 Working Party is due to make its opinion public on Friday. The Article 29 Working Party is made up of data protection regulators from 27 member countries and is independent of the Commission.

A source from the organisation said it was "very likely" that it would adopt an opinion on geographic location, the NYT reported.

Matthew Newman, a spokesman for the Commission's vice president Viviane Reding, said that protecting personal data obtained through new technologies was a priority for the Commission. Reding is leading a review of European privacy laws.

"The Commission is currently analysing all forms of new technology and we will take into consideration social network sites and the rise of data-sharing like photos and the use of cloud computing and behavioural advertising when we reform the Data Protection Directive later this year," Newman said.

"The technology has moved on in leaps and bounds since the Directive came into force more than 15 years ago, so what we want to do is see how people are using the technologies and how that relates to personal data to make sure that people's fundamental rights are protected," Newman said.

Last month, researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden claimed that versions of Apple's iPhone and iPad devices stored information about where the devices had been.

Files containing coordinates for longitude and latitude and the time that the information was recorded were automatically copied and stored, without protection, on a user's computer when the device connected to the machine, the researchers said.

"As far as we can tell, the location is determined by triangulating against the nearest cellphone towers. This isn't as accurate as GPS, but presumably takes less power. In some cases it can get very confused and temporarily think you're several miles from your actual location, but these tend to be intermittent glitches," Allan and Warden said.

"This information being stored on the device raises concerns about access by third-party iOS apps which collect data and share with advertisers; by police and border controls agencies that in many countries routinely look through phones without warrants; as well as access concerns if the phone is lost," Simon Davies, director of lobby group Privacy International said at the time.

Apple subsequently updated its iOS 4 operating system and said it did not track users' locations.

The European Commission is currently investigating Apple following the researchers' apparent discovery. The UK, Ireland, Germany, France and Italy have all said that they are looking into whether Apple broke national data protection laws.

In 2009, MPs criticised Google after the company established a system to allow mobile users to permit tracking of their location. Google argued that it anonymously processed the data and only recorded it in the first place if mobile users consented.

Copyright © 2011, OUT-LAW.com

OUT-LAW.COM is part of international law firm Pinsent Masons.

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