Smartphone Privacy Fears Raised

Sat, Apr 23, 2011 at 12:42 pm

    Location tracking on Google, Apple devices concerns consumers

    Amid global outrage over reports that Apple Inc.’s iPhone and iPad keep records of users’ movements without their knowledge, the giant Internet company Google Inc. is now grappling with a privacy controversy of its own.

    The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that smartphones using Google’s popular Android operating system constantly transmit user location data to Google. The news quickly led to new calls for federal legislation to protect the privacy of smartphone users. But Google says the practice is not a threat to privacy.

    “We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing, and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices,” the company said in a statement.

    During the process of setting up a new Android phone, a prominent message appears on screen asking users if they are willing to let Google “collect anonymous location data.” That means Google would record the whereabouts of the phone, but not the identity of its owner. The information can be analyzed to help the company provide more accurate location services, such as by providing the addresses of nearby restaurants and stores.

    A second message asks for permission to share location data with various Google programs, including those for maps and turn-by-turn driving instructions. The data is used only while the programs are in operation, and no information is recorded by Google, a spokeswoman said. Android owners can use the phone’s location-based services even if they opt out of letting Google collect location data.

    Still, the report on Google’s data collection policy yesterday prompted advocacy group Consumer Watchdog, based in Washington, D.C., to ask for a law to ensure that phone users can choose not to be tracked.

    “These aren’t smartphones, they are spy phones,” said John Simpson, director of the group’s privacy project.

    The Google debate comes as privacy advocates are criticizing rival smartphone company Apple. Earlier this week, computer security researchers found that iPhones and iPads automatically store a record of their users’ locations. The information is kept in a file on the phone, and is copied to the user’s personal computer when it is synchronized with an iPhone. The file is unencrypted, so anyone who gained access to the phone or computer would have a virtual roadmap of the user’s movements over a period of months.

    Congressman Edward J. Markey, a Malden

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    Democrat, on Thursday sent a letter to Apple executives demanding an explanation. Markey said he is especially concerned that location files could be accessed by child predators to track potential victims. “Increasingly, children have iPhones and Androids at age 13,
    14, 15, 16, when they are still very vulnerable to predators,” he said. “It makes it a lot easier for a predator if they can actually know where you are, where you’ve been, and where you’re likely to go.”

    Meanwhile in Europe, where countries have much stricter privacy laws than in the United States, the governments of Italy, France, and Germany have started investigating Apple, to decide whether its collection of location data is legal.

    Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com

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