FCC Announces a Public Forum on Smartphone Location Tracking Systems

Thu, May 19, 2011 at 11:53 am

    The Federal Communications Commission has waded into the midst of the roiling controversy about location tracking systems built into Apple iPhones and Google Android smartphones.

    The FCC at 5 p.m. Eastern time today announced that it will hold a “public education forum” to which it has invited the telecom industry, smartphone operating systems suppliers, privacy groups and academia. The forum will be held June 28 in Washington D.C.

    The FCC’s stated goal: to explore “how consumers can be both smart and secure” when using cutting-edge smartphones that are capable of precisely tracking a user’s whereabouts multiple times 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.”

    The FCC has also invited privacy experts from the Federal Trade Commission. The FTC has taken the lead in scrutinizing how targeted online ads — built around mining and analyzing data to create online profiles of consumers — can erode personal privacy.

    “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,” says Milkman.

    The FCC is responsible for regulating the business practices of cellphone service giants AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. The agency now wants to convey that it is paying attention to recent revelations about smartphone location tracking systems, says John Blevins, associate professor of law at Loyala University New Orleans. Last week, Sen Al Franken, D- Minn., held a Senate hearing at which he grilled Apple and Google officials about how and why iPhones and Android devices keep precise track of users’ whereabouts.

    “Privacy is a big area of concern right now; Congress and the FTC are looking at this,” says Blevins, who is an FCC expert. “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.”

    Update: 6:42 p.m. Eastern. John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog, notes that the FCC is continuing an investigation into Google’s past practice of sending fleets of specially equipped vehicles criss-crossing city streets in 30-plus nations to take photos for its mapping service — and to collect data from Wi-Fi systems in homes and businesses.

    Because of the recent focus on smartphone location tracking, it is now widely known that Wi-Fi network locations, along with cell tower locations, are routinely used by Apple and Google to help triangulate the physical whereabouts of individual iPhone and Android users.

    Precursor analyst Scott Cleland says that Google has continued to tap into Wi-Fi signals of homes and businesses. He says the search giant has ” just secretly changed the signal-collection technology from Street View cars to any device with an Android operating system.”

    Simpson says smartphones are increasingly being used as “spy-phones” by the tech giants.

    “This is an excellent move by the FCC and FTC,” says Simpson. ” Mobile has been the Wild West of the Internet. This forum should help educate consumers about what’s at stake with location-based services and help inform the FCC about necessary regulations.”

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