Politicians Demand Answers On Smartphone Tracking

Dennis Faas's picture

Both Republican and Democratic politicians are questioning major tech companies about location data tracking features on mobile devices, such as cell phones.

Five Republican congressmen who hold key positions on the House of Representatives Energy and Commerce committee have recently written joint letters to six companies: Apple, Google, Hewlett-Packard (HP), Microsoft, Nokia and Research in Motion (RIM).

User Awareness Comes Into Question

The letters demand information about the location data tracking features on the devices that the companies either manufacture or supply with an operating system (OS). It asks whether such data is automatically transferred to themselves or a third party and whether such data can be manually transferred and, if so, under what circumstances this happens. (Source: house.gov)

The congressmen go on to ask whether users are informed about such data collection and transmission, as well as whether it's possible for a user to disable the tracking or delete data.

Franken Pens Letter to Apple

Meanwhile, Democrat senator Al Franken has written his own letter to Apple. He wants answers about recent reports that Apple's portable devices are set to track and store the user's geographical location as many as 100 times a day. (Source: ibtimes.com)

One researcher has already built an Apple iPhone app which shows a user's movements over time.

There's some dispute about how precise the location data is, however. While Franken notes speculation that it uses triangulation to put the location to the nearest 50 meters, other reports suggest the system only finds the nearest single cellphone tower, which gives results that are both less precise and less accurate.

Tracking Data May Not Be Encrypted

Aside from the objection to Apple collecting this data in the first place, the main fear is that it appears to be stored in an unencrypted format. This means that somebody who had either physical access to a device or was able to successfully hack into it would be able to track a user's movements.

Franken has asked Apple and Google to attend a hearing in Washington D.C. in May. It's also been requested that the same two companies meet Illinois' Attorney-General Lisa Madigan to discuss the issue on a state basis.

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