Franken Chastises Google, Apple at Mobile Privacy Hearing

Senator goes after companies over location data

Putting on his most serious face, former comedian turned Democratic senator from Minnesota Al Franken gaveled to order his first hearing as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law Tuesday morning. With Franken’s instant recognizability and the star power of representatives from both Google and Apple, who were on hand to testify about how they manage the collection of mobile location data, there was no shortage of cameras, audience, or press.

There was, however, a shortage of Republicans, as only one Republican member of the subcommittee, Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, showed up.

The issue has been getting quite a bit of traction on Capitol Hill lately, so it was no surprise that Franken jumped to schedule the hearing after a couple of research geeks discovered that software in iPhones and Andoid phones was tracking—and storing—users' location data. The press piled on, whipping up a frenzy of fear among consumers and alarm among congressional leaders.

On Tuesday, Franken immediately tried to strike a balance between the glories of the new media and its potential dangers. “You guys are brilliant,” said Franken of Apple and Google. “I love that I can use Google Maps for free. But there needs to be a balance. The Freedom of Information Act does not apply to Silicon Valley."

The representatives from both Apple and Google defended their companies’ current practices for protecting location services data. Guy “Bud” Tribble, vice president of software technology for Apple, said, “We do not share personally identifiable information . . . without our customers’ consent. We do not track users’ locations and we have no plans to do so.”

Apple last week fixed what Tribble called a “bug” that saved users' location data. In the next major release of the software, the cache of that data will be encrypted, he said.

Google sent one of its top government policy reps to testify. “All of Google’s location services are opt-in only,” said Alan Davidson, the company's director of public policy.

Franken wasn’t completely satisfied with the responses from Google and Apple and asked both companies to require a privacy policy for the firms developing apps for their systems. 

"Consumers are repeatedly surprised," Franken said. "They trust their computers and phones a great deal, and to the degree [companies] aren’t taking adequate steps to make this clear to consumers, that’s a problem."