Apple and Google in the spotlight during Franken hearings

WASHINGTON – Before a packed hearing room, executives from Apple and Google told a group of senators this morning that their companies take consumer privacy seriously.

DFL Sen. Al Franken called the hearings as part of a newly-formed subcommittee tasked with examining the privacy implications of new technologies. Since joining the Senate in 2009, Franken has taken a strong interest in online issues, including net neutrality regulations and privacy.

“I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them,” Franken said in opening remarks. “I also believe that they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information, and with whom they want to share it and when.”

In an interview with MPR News yesterday, Franken said more than just privacy was at stake for some people.

“The first people that got back to me [after the hearings were announced] were the Minnesota battered women’s coalition,” Franken said. “They said that this technology is frequently exploited by abusive partners.”

Both Apple and Google are under scrutiny because their smartphone platforms are popular with consumers and both companies have had very public missteps around privacy issues in the recent past.

Apple “does not track users information,” said Guy “Bud” Tribble, the company’s vice-president of technology, in response to questions about a recently discovered file on Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices that contains detailed data about a user’s whereabouts.

Google Director of Public Policy Alan Davidson emphasized that users could only voluntarily opt-in to his company’s location-based services, which transmit data back to Google.

But other experts said every part of the smart phone ecosystem, from Google and Apple to software developers to cell phone carriers, operates in a legal free-for-all zone.

“The default law in this country for sharing of data is you can do whatever you want,” said Justin Brookman, a consumer privacy advocate with the Center for Democracy and Technology in Washington, DC.

Google and Apple both emphasized that the data collected by both companies was stripped of identifying information and made anonymous, a claim disputed by another witness, Ashkan Soltani.

“It’s really difficult to call this stuff anonymous, making those claims is not I think really sincere,” said Soltani, an independent security consultant who has helped develop the Wall Street Journal’s ongoing series on electronic privacy.

Franken expects to hold more hearings like these over the coming months. While he didn’t anticipate unveiling legislation based on the findings of the hearing, Senate Judiciary Chair Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said he plans to offer updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.

Unlike many events in the highly-polarized capital these days, the tone was bipartisan. Ranking member Tom Coburn (R-OK) welcomed the hearings but cautioned, “We need a whole lot more information and knowledge before we come to conclusions about what should or needs to be done.”

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