Franken to question Apple on smartphone privacy


If you went to Nicole Anderson’s Facebook page on a Friday evening, you’d most likely be able to tell where she was. Anderson, a psychology senior, frequently uses the “check-in” application on her phone, allowing it to access her location and post it on her page.

Anderson chooses to use check-in, but not everyone wants their whereabouts posted.

Users of any Apple device — like an iPhone or iPad — with a recently upgraded system have had their location tracked automatically for up to a year without their permission.

The upgrade came out a few days before the iPhone 4 in June 2010. Data showing the devices’ tracking records was released by security researchers two weeks ago.

For Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., this is a serious and dangerous violation of privacy. As chairman of the Privacy, Technology and the Law Senate Judiciary Subcommittee, Franken will hold a hearing May 10 on the issue. Representatives from Apple and Google, which has a similar operating system in its Android phones, will be testifying at the hearing.

Franken recently sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs about his company’s most recent operating system. In the letter, Franken said the technology raises “serious privacy concerns” for users, especially kids and teenagers.

Researchers who looked into Apple’s tracking system found the information the phone stores is likely accurate to 50 meters or less, Franken said in
the letter.

“Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend and the trips he has taken — over the past months or even a year,” Franken wrote.

Jim Dawson, a mechanical engineering senior and iPhone user, said he’s not too concerned.

“It’s not as big of a deal as people are making it,” Dawson said, because the information isn’t sent to Apple, but stored locally on the phone or computer. The only way someone would have access to it would be through those devices.

But Dawson said it’s something users need to be aware of.

“[Apple] should tell us why they’re storing the information,” he said. “They just kind of went and did it.”

Apple was unavailable for comment, and Google said any type of location sharing for its Android is voluntary.

For Franken, as technology continues to advance, a stronger awareness of consumer privacy is needed.

“The same technology that has given us smartphones, tablets and cellphones has also allowed these devices to gather extremely sensitive information about users, including detailed records of their daily movements and location,” he said in a press release.

The Senate hearing next week is the “first step in making certain that federal laws protecting consumers’ privacy — particularly when it comes to mobile devices — keep pace with advances in technology,” Franken said.