WASHINGTON - Executives from Apple and Google told lawmakers Tuesday that users have control over information used to pinpoint the location of iPhones and smartphones running Google's Android software.
Guy "Bud" Tribble, vice president of software technology for Apple Inc., told a Senate Judiciary panel Tuesday that Apple gives users the ability to turn off all location-based functionality in its mobile devices with a single on/off switch, as well as the ability to block individual applications from accessing location information. The company also requires iPhone apps to obtain user consent to access location data, Tribble said.
Alan Davidson, Google Inc.'s director of public policy, told lawmakers that the company does not collect any location information unless a user specifically agrees to share it, and allows users to turn off location sharing later even after initially allowing it. Google, too, requires apps for its Android operating system to get user permission in order to collect location data, Davidson said.
Tuesday's hearing by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law follows Apple's recent admission that its popular iPhone stores data used to help the device locate itself for up to a year. Apple also said that a software bug has caused iPhones to continue to send anonymous location data to the company's servers even when location services on the device were turned off.
Faced with an uproar among privacy watchdogs and lawmakers after two researchers revealed the iPhone location tracking practices, Apple has said it will no longer store the data on phones for more than seven days, will encrypt the data and will stop backing up the files to user computers. It also has fixed the bug with a free software update.
Google, too, recently acknowledged that phones running its Android software store some GPS location data for a short time.
Tuesday's hearing comes at a time when location-based mobile services - from turn-by-turn driving directions to friend-finder applications to local business listings - are exploding in popularity. Device makers like Apple, software developers like Google and third-party apps developers generally rely on GPS technology, cell tower triangulation and databases of Wi-Fi hot spots to track a user's location in order to provide such services.
Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who chairs the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, said that while location-based services offer consumers enormous benefits, they also raise serious concerns since location data can be very sensitive and very dangerous if it falls into the wrong hands. He noted that the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women in his home state has warned that location-tracking technology can be misused by stalkers and abusive spouses.
"This is a problem... And I think that's something the American people should be aware of," Franken said. He added: "I just want to be clear that the answer to this problem is not ending location-based services. No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products."
Franken challenged executives from both companies to require all outside apps developers that make programs for their mobile platforms to adopt formal privacy policies. Tribble said Apple believes that privacy policies alone are not enough. He explained that privacy needs to be baked into products - for instance, in the form of clear on-screen disclosures that notify users how their personal data is collected and tools to control that data collection.
Davidson said he would bring the suggestion back to Google's top executives.