US Bodies’ Set Up Forum On Location-Based Services


The location-based practices of Apple, Google and others still have US lawmakers seeking answers

Details of the location-tracking practices of the Apple iPhone and Android-running devices still are not sitting well with federal regulators, who have scheduled a June 28 public education forum on the topic to learn a bit more and to help educate consumers.

In a statement, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the Federal Communications Commission’s (FFC’s) Wireless Telecommunications Bureau announced the forum, which will include representatives from wireless carriers, technology companies, consumer-advocacy groups and academia. The forum members will explore topics including how location based services (LBS) work; the benefits and risks of LBS; consumer do’s and don’ts; industry best practices; and what parents should know about location tracking when their children use mobile devices.

Location Argument Moves Along

Location-aware technology is used for purposes such as enabling emergency services to track calls to 911, to offer driving directions or to look up price comparisons for nearby stores. However in April, two researchers discovered that the iPhone had kept nearly a year’s worth of unencrypted information on its whereabouts, starting a ball rolling that has yet to stop or slow.

Lawmakers have sent letters to Apple and other manufacturers seeking answers, lawsuits have been filed by consumers and a Senate subcommittee hearing has taken place, with lawmakers questioning whether consumer-protecting legislation is keeping pace with technology.

Apple has taken pains to explain that it does not track iPhone users, but rather it populates a database of area WiFi and cellular towers – some of which might be as far as 100 miles away – so that location-data requests could be served up without delay. That the devices often continued to log location data about users even after the Location Services feature was turned off – and that quite so much data was stored, when just a week’s worth would do – Apple blamed on software bugs.

In an April 27 statement, Apple explained that it would soon release an iOS software update – which it has – to reduce the size of the database cache stored on an iPhone and to delete the cache when Locations Services was turned off. The next major release of iOS, it added, will additionally encrypt the cache on the iPhone.

During a May 10 Senate subcommittee hearing, Guy “Bud” Tribble, Apple’s vice president for software technology, reiterated that Apple was not tracking users, while Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy, emphasised the importance of users’ trust to Google’s business model.

“If we fail to offer clear, usable privacy controls, transparency in our privacy practices and strong security,” Davidson said in his written testimony, “our users will simply switch to another provider.”

Privacy Balance Sought

Senator Al Franken, who hosted the hearing, said that no one was trying to stop Google or Apple from doing what they do, but to “find the balance between all of the wonderful things [they do] and consumers’ privacy”. In their statement regarding the forum, the FTC and FCC likewise emphasised that while innovations in the use of LBS technologies extend new perks and possibilities to consumers, as well as being a boon to the economy, recent reports have raised concerns.

“The FCC’s National Broadband Plan recognises that consumer apprehension about privacy can also act as a barrier to the adoption and utilisation of broadband and mobile devices,” the statement continued. “Clear information and public education can help consumers better understand these services.”

The forum will run 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. ET, and the public is encouraged to file comments using the ECFS (Electronic Comment Filing System) or by filing paper copies. For instructions on filing an electronic comment, interested parties should email, with “Get Form” in the body of the message, for further instructions.

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