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Google, Apple face questions on privacy of their mobile apps

Use of data needs to be regulated, lawmaker says

By Eric Engleman and Adam Satariano
Bloomberg News / May 20, 2011

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WASHINGTON — Some members of Congress, considering legislation to protect consumers’ online privacy, say the market for smartphone applications needs to be regulated to prevent the inappropriate sharing of users’ data.

As mobile devices “become more powerful, more personal information is being concentrated in one place,’’ Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, said yesterday during a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on mobile privacy. “These devices are not really phones — they are miniature computers.’’

“The mobile marketplace is so new and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions,’’ Rockefeller said in prepared remarks.

Apple Inc., Google Inc., and Facebook Inc. — plus thousands of developers who make applications for the companies’ platforms — are facing scrutiny over how they collect, use, and store information, including data gathered from smartphones and other wireless devices. Executives from the three companies appeared before the panel yesterday.

Google defended its handling of user data tied to mobile devices that run on its Android software, telling lawmakers it seeks consent for the collection and use of location information.

“Google is also very careful about how we use and store the data that is generated by these services,’’ testified Alan Davidson, director of public policy for the company.

Rockefeller said he wrote to Apple and Google, asking them whether applications that run on their mobile platforms comply with online privacy laws for children.

Catherine Novelli, a vice president at Apple, said the company does not knowingly collect any information on children under 13. All location data gathered from iPhones and iPad tablet computers are anonymous and cannot be traced to individuals, she said. The information is used to improve the functionality of the devices.

“Apple does not track users’ location, has never done so, and has no plans to do so,’’ she said. If an app misuses data, the company gives the developer 24 hours to fix the problem or be removed from the App Store, Novelli said.

Google provides parental controls to protect children and requires developers to rate the maturity level of apps, Davidson said.

The location information sent to Google servers when users opt in to location services on Android is stripped of identity tags and stored in the aggregate, Davidson said. “It’s not tied or traceable to a specific user.’’

Facebook’s chief technology officer, Bret Taylor, said the company has “robust privacy protections.’’ If customers “lose trust in a service like Facebook, they will stop using it.’’

Pressed on children’s use of Facebook, Taylor said no one under age 13 can create an account and that Facebook removes underage users’ profiles.

Rockefeller, who introduced legislation May 9 that would let consumers choose not to have online activities tracked, said the Federal Trade Commission is not being aggressive enough. An FTC official, however, said the agency is short of staff but is pursuing vigorous enforcement.