May 18, 2011

Apple , Google To Answer To Privacy Concerns

With a cloud of suspicion following them after privacy concerns with smartphones came to light, Apple and Google have been invited to explain the location tracking of their mobile devices by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), AP is reporting.

Apple's popular iPhone and smartphones running Google's Android software have been storing location information even when location services were turned off on the devices. The FTC and FCC, under pressure from the public, want to know what this information is being used for and what privacy trade-offs may be involved.

Location-based applications are used every day by smartphone owners. These services can range from mapping destinations, finding the locations of friends, business services, gaming, or even astronomy. Location is very central to the uses we want on our mobile devices.

However, this location data gets stored over time and can provide a window into very private details about a person's life. Databases filled with such information, they fear, could become inviting targets for hackers, stalkers, divorce attorneys and law enforcement agents.

The goal of the FCC in these meetings is to answer, "how consumers can be both smart and secure" when using mobile devices are capable of precisely tracking a user's whereabouts during the course of a day.

"This is the first time the FCC has taken a comprehensive look at location-based services and privacy," says Ruth Milkman the FCC's wireless bureau chief. "We recognize the enormous potential for benefit that location-based services offer "“ but we're also acutely aware of the risks caused by consumer confusion," USA Today is reporting.

The FTC will concentrate on how targeted online ads can erode personal privacy. Online ads can appear on your phone when passing by a paid advertiser's store, for example. Over time, this builds a profile of your shopping and travel habits. This is information that is highly valuable to marketing companies but is also highly personal.

"Together with the FTC staff, we are looking forward to a vibrant and robust conversation with a diverse group of stakeholders "“ including the public "“ about how people can utilize location-based services in a smart and secure way," explains Milkman.

"Privacy is a big area of concern right now; Congress and the FTC are looking at this," says John Blevins, associate professor of law at Loyala University New Orleans. "This has become an important issue to these players and it makes sense that the FCC wants to be in on it and announce their involvement."

Longtime privacy advocate, Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy, is skeptical of the FCC's true motives for convening a discussion forum.

"It has taken the FCC so long to even ask the right questions -- even Congress has beat them to it," says Chester. "I fear this event will feature smooth-talking industry representatives who will lull the FCC into believing that consumers don't need any new safeguards when they really do."

The FCC feels that the technology has a lot of promise but is also concerned that consumers are unaware of what data is collected and what is done with it, said an FCC official, who asked not to be named.

"While the use of location data has spurred innovation, the FCC's National Broadband Plan recognizes that consumer apprehension about privacy can also act as a barrier to the adoption and utilization of broadband and mobile devices," Reuters reports from an FCC statement.


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