Today’s Congressional Hearing on Location Privacy

May 10, 2011
Representatives of Apple, Google, the Federal Trade Commission, the Justice Department and others testified today at a hearing of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and Law chaired by Senator Al Franken. Several quick impressions:
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act sorely needs to be updated to deal with the revolution in digital technology that has occurred since the ECPA was adopted decades ago. Amendments seem likely.
Google and Apple have been less than forthcoming about the privacy implications of their mobile technologies.
Steve Jobs should not have denied that iPhones track a user’s location. In a strained sense, the statement is true, but a more accurate and nuanced statement would have been that an iPhone and Apple and many other companies have routinely received time-stamped location data over the last year that gives amazingly detailed and frequent information about the phone’s, and inferentially the user’s, location.
Doubts were raised about how anonymous the “anonymized” location data is that Apple and Google collect and use.
Privacy issues are truly complex and will not yield easy answers, but some answers will emerge from this process that do not now exist.
The benefits of location technology are so useful and beguiling that the answer will not be to try to restrain the general developments in location technology.
Little attention is being given to the impact of location data upon criminal prosecutions and civil litigation as of now, but the congressional process will likely give this issue careful attention.


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