Tech giants Apple Inc. and Google Inc. were grilled by congressional senators for their cell phone tracking tactics in the inaugural hearing of the Privacy and Technology Subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary.
Led by Minnesota Democrat Senator Al Franken, the subcommittee questioned representatives from Google and Apple on their tactics of using smartphones to track users' locations and then subsequently sell that information to third parties. Even after hearing testimony from Apple saying it does not track user locations and Google saying the only location data it collects is anonymous and is deleted within a week, Franken and company didn't seem to be satisfied.
I think that people have a right to know who is getting their information, and a right to decide how that information is shared and used. After having heard today's testimony, I have serious doubts that those rights are being respected in law or in practice, Franken said at the end of the three hour long hearing.
Both companies were steadfast in their own defense. Guy Tribble, Apple's vice president of software technology, said outright, Apple does not track users' locations-Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.
Tribble said individual users are not pinpointed with the company's GPS capabilities, only cell phone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots. Furthermore, he said customers have the right to turn off location based service capabilities if they so choose. Google had a similar response, saying it does not actually track individual user locations and customers have the right to turn off those capabilities.
Franken said Apple and Google's response was confusing and seemed contradictory. He was confused as to how Apple CEO Steve Jobs could say it didn't track user locations, but then the company later state the iPhone could calculate a user's location.
In response, Tribble said, That data does not actually contain -- in our databases -- any customer information at all. It's completely anonymous. It's only about the cellphone towers and the Wi-Fi hotspots. However, when a portion of that database is downloaded onto your phone, your phone also knows which hotspots and cellphone towers it can receive right now.
Google and Apple also both addressed individual privacy issues. Apple said with a recent iOS update, it fixed a bug that tracked users phones even when they had turned location sharing off. Google addressed questions from Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal on the collection and use of data it obtained from millions of consumers using its Street View service.
For three years, Google intercepted and collected bits of user information, payload data - emails, passwords, browsing history, and other personal information - while driving around taking pictures of people's homes on the streets in the Street View program. The company first denied that it was collecting this information... and then it denied that it was collecting it intentionally, Blumenthal said.
Google representative Alan Davidson defended the company saying, We have tried to be very clear about the fact that it was not our policy to collect this information, it was not the company's intent to collect the content or payload information. People at the company were quite surprised, and honestly
Davidson also said Google has destroyed some of the information it collected while working with regulators to determine what to do with the rest. Meanwhile, both companies were grilled by New York Senator Charles Schumer of their DUI checkpoint tracking apps. He implored both of them to remove the apps.
Apple and Google shouldn't be in the business of selling apps that help drunk drivers evade the police, and they shouldn't be selling apps that they themselves admit are 'terrible', Schumer said.
Google said the apps weren't against their policy, but would look into reviewing them. Apple also agreed to review the apps.
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