Google Inc., fielding lawmakers’ questions over how it protects consumers’ privacy, said its mobile software doesn’t gather location data from a handset without a user’s permission.
“Google recognizes the particular privacy concerns that come with the collection and storage of location information,” Alan Davidson, the company’s director of public policy, said in testimony prepared for a Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing today in Washington. “That’s why we don’t collect any location information — any at all — through our location services on Android devices unless the user specifically chooses to share this information with Google.”
Representatives of Apple Inc. and Google, makers of software used in millions of smartphones, are scheduled to appear in Congress today as lawmakers consider new online privacy rules that could alter how they operate. The companies are at the center of a debate over whether use of location-based data violates consumers’ privacy. The concerns were heightened after an April report that Apple’s iPhone was logging certain location information.
Apple, Google and other companies use location data to deliver targeted advertising and help customers users find nearby businesses. The U.S. market for location-based services, including applications and advertising, is expected to increase to $4.7 billion by 2015 from $1.6 billion in 2010, according to ABI Research, an Oyster Bay, New York-based research firm.
Apple, the world’s largest technology company by market value, was called to testify following revelations about its data-collection practices.
An April 20 report by two computer programmers said that the operating system used in iPhones and iPad tablet computers logs users’ coordinates along with the time that a location is visited.
Apple responded on April 27, saying that it doesn’t track iPhone users’ locations, while acknowledging that it collects data on Wi-Fi hot spots and wireless towers near the device. The Cupertino, California-based company issued a software update to limit how much location information was being logged or let users turn off the feature.
Concerns raised by the programmers’ report have led to investigations by regulators in Germany, France, Italy and South Korea. The attorneys general of Illinois and Connecticut also have sought explanations from Apple and Google on how the companies collect and store location information.
Witnesses include Guy “Bud” Tribble, Apple’s vice president of software technology, along with officials from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department, according to Franken’s office.
Google’s Android operating system accounted for 35 percent of global smartphone shipments in the first quarter of this year, followed by Apple with 19 percent, according to a report this month from technology research firm Canalys. Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd., HTC Corp., Motorola Mobility Holdings Corp. are among the device makers that install Android on their products.
Google, based in Mountain View, California, gives away Android software to boost revenue from services such as mobile advertising and expand the market for its search engine.
In the prepared testimony, Davidson explained how Google gathers location data from phones while emphasizing the information is not traceable to any specific user.
A small amount of “location information” is kept on the devices regarding nearby Wi-Fi access points and cell towers to ensure that the device can keep providing location services when there’s no connection to Google servers, Davidson said. The information is not tied to a specific user, he said.
If users change their minds about location share, they can later turn it off, according to Davidson.
Still, outside developers of applications for Android bear responsibility for how their software “collects and handles user data and the privacy disclosures” to users who opt into the service, he said.
“Google does not control the behavior of third-party applications or how they handle location information and other user information that the third-party application obtains from the device, even though Google strongly encourages application developers to use best practices,” he said.
Apple previewed its defense in a May 6 letter to Representative Mary Bono Mack, a California Republican, a member of the Energy and Commerce Committee. The company has never tracked users’ locations and “has no plans to ever do so,” Bruce Sewell, Apple’s general counsel, wrote in the 15-page letter.
More Privacy Scrutiny
Apple said it released a software update on May 4 that limits how much location information is collected on the iPhone and allows users to turn off the location feature.
The pressure on Apple and Google over location-based data coincides with broader efforts by U.S. lawmakers to strengthen online privacy protections.
Senator Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, yesterday introduced “do not track” legislation that would allow consumers to opt out of having their personal information collected on the Internet and give the Federal Trade Commission the authority to force companies to comply.
Representatives Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, and Joe Barton, a Texas Republican, released draft legislation on May 6 that would require companies to obtain parental consent for collecting children’s personal data online and prohibit the use of that information for targeted marketing.
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