Developers of Smartphone Software Scrutinized Over Location-Tracking Issues

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Firms that develop operating systems for mobile smartphones are facing congressional scrutiny in the wake of reports that Apple Inc.'s iPhone and iPad devices track the location of users in detail.

The issue has drawn attention from key members of Congress, including Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of a new Senate Judiciary subcommittee on technology and privacy issues, and House Energy and Commerce Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.).

In addition, a class action lawsuit has been filed in a Florida district court, claiming that Apple has harmed consumers by secretly collecting their location data without their permission (Ajjampur v. Apple Inc., M.D. Fla., No. 8:11-cv-00895 complaint filed 4/22/11).

According to the suit, the firm violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, as well as state laws prohibiting unfair and deceptive practices.

Hearing Scheduled.

Franken April 25 announced a May 10 hearing on the matter. The hearing, “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy,” will be the first held by the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, which was unveiled earlier this year.

“This hearing 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 in a statement.

Confirmed witnesses include officials from the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, according to the statement.

On April 20, Franken sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs raising privacy concerns about the company's iOS 4 operating system, which reportedly secretly stores detailed information about users' locations on their iPhones, iPads, and any computers to which the devices are synched, generally in an unencrypted format.

Among other questions, Apple was asked: why is the data collected and compiled; why is it not encrypted; and why were consumers not affirmatively informed of the collection and retention of their data?

Upton and other top Republicans on the House Commerce Committee have also asked Apple to respond to privacy questions, including what location data is tracked, stored, and shared through devices running the firm's operating system; how is the information protected; and who has access to it? The letter also asked whether Apple is covered by privacy provisions of the Communications Act.

The letter was co-signed by the chair and vice chair of the Subcommittee on Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade, as well as the chair and vice chair of the Subcommittee on Communications and Technology. The committee leaders sent similar letters to several other companies that develop operating systems for mobile devices, including Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp.

Meanwhile, two U.S. consumers filed a class action lawsuit against Apple on April 22 in the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Florida.

“Plaintiffs and proposed Class members were harmed by Apple's accrual of personal location, movement and travel histories because their personal computers were used in ways they did not approve, and because they were personally tracked just as if by a tracking device for which a court-ordered warrant would ordinarily be required,” the complaint alleges.

The suit, filed by Vikram Ajjampur, a Florida resident and William Devito, a New York resident, seeks injunctive relief and damages.

By Alexei Alexis

The Franken letter is available at

The House Commerce Committee letters are available at

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