Article first published as Apple’s ‘Locationgate’ 2011 To Be Investigated By Congress on Technorati.
Apple certainly has had its hands full lately. Earnings for the tech giant have skyrocketed, in large part thanks to the success of the iPhone, which now accounts for 50% of the company’s revenue. In addition, Apple is just now balancing the supply and demand of the widely popular iPad 2, and the iPhone 5 is expected to begin shipping in September. Nevermind the fact that Apple is now embroiled in a legal battle with Samsung–the very company that supplies some crucial iPhone components–over patent infringement. Oh yeah, and as it turns out, with as busy as Apple appears to be, they’ve been tracking the moves of iPhone users everywhere, according to reports. They were just hoping that maybe nobody would notice.
Last week when reports surfaced that the iPhone contained a hidden file that tracked user location, the tech world erupted in anger. So much so that the scandal–now dubbed “Locationgate”–prompted action from Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs demanding answers about the nature of the location tracking and why users were never made aware of its existence. On Monday, Franken, Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, announced the subcommittee’s first hearing, titled “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy” on Tuesday, May 10, 2011 at 10:00 a.m.
Franken has summoned members from both Apple and Google to appear at the hearing, as well as witnesses from the Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission. In addition, Ashkan Soltani, independent privacy researcher and consultant; and Justin Brookman, Director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy are expected to testify.
The hearing is the first congressional investigation of its kind into the implications of location tracking for consumers and manufactures alike. The question that remains to be answered is whether or not Apple and Google, makers of two of the most widely used mobile platforms are in violation of any consumer privacy laws.
Wired broke the story late Monday that two Apple customers filed a lawsuit after learning of the location tracking. The suit filled on April 22, 2011 in federal court in Tampa, Florida cites concerns over privacy and alleges a violation of The Computer Fraud and Abuse Act by unlawfully collecting a user’s location data without consent. Apple claims that the location data collected is anonymous and not linked to specific users. iPhone users who don’t want their location tracked have two options: Jailbreak the device to install a third party application that removes the file from the phone, or ditch the handset in favor of another. Unfortunately, turning off the location settings on the iPhone itself does not prevent the handset from storing or transmitting such data.
Jobs, despite being on medical leave, issued his first statement on the issue Monday, addressing concerns amongst the Apple faithful. When Jobs received an e-mail seeking clarification on the issue, his reply seemed dismissive. “We don’t track anyone. The information circulating is false.” He went on to attack Android amidst claims by the e-mail’s author that that the Google handset was free from tracking mechanisms. “Oh yes they do [track you]” replied Jobs. Not as snarky as his replies are sometimes known to be, but reminiscent certainly of when iPhone 4 “Antennagate” broke and Jobs’ initial reply was simply, “Well, don’t hold it that way.” If history is any guide, Jobs will end up apologizing later pretending like it’s no big deal. Jobs’ reply is the only comment by Apple on the issue to date, which raises the question: where is their PR department? And why have they remained silent on the issue for so long? This late in the game their silence raises more questions than answers.
For their part, Google has defended its practices claiming that all location based data collected by their Android devices requires users to opt-in. According to an April 23, 2011 article published in the Wall Street Journal, a Google spokesman offered the following statement:
”We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices.”
As concerns over location tracking grow among smartphone users, it will be worth watching how Apple and Google respond and what information is gleaned from the upcoming congressional hearing. “Antennagate” and “Glassgate” may be events of the past for Apple, but “Locationgate” is just beginning. Stay tuned.