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Apple Stonewalling on Location Tracking Triggers Congressional Hearings

Apple Stonewalling on Location Tracking Triggers Congressional Hearings

by Dan Lyons | April 25, 2011 | 10:39pm

Sen. Al Franken just announced hearings on the location-tracking software in iPhone and iPad, South Korea and Europe are investigating—and here come the lawsuits. Dan Lyons reports on fallout from Steve Jobs’ silence in the data flap.

Congress is turning up the heat on Apple over reports that the iPhone and iPad 3G have been secretly keeping track of users’ location data.

For nearly a week, Apple has refused to comment on reports that first surfaced in an article by two researchers last week. Apple would not even respond when Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) and U.S. Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote directly to Apple CEO Steve Jobs seeking an explanation.

Today the furor ratcheted up another step as Franken announced he will hold a hearing about mobile phones and privacy on May 10, with Apple and Google invited to attend.

Meanwhile, South Korea and Europe are also investigating. In the U.S., customers are filing lawsuits alleging Apple invaded their privacy and committed fraud. And the Illinois attorney general is seeking a meeting with Apple and Google.

The trouble began last week, when a pair of researchers revealed that the iPhone and iPad 3G keep a record of everywhere a user has been. The phone scans nearby cell towers to gather location data. The data are kept on the device itself, and copied over to your computer when you sync the mobile device with iTunes on a laptop or desktop computer. Worse, the data are unencrypted, so anyone with access to your computer or mobile device can get the information.

Soon after the report on Apple came out, other researchers discovered that phones based on Android, the mobile operating system made by Google, also track user location. Google put out a statement saying that their phones don’t track users unless users “opt-in,” and, furthermore, “Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

Apple, in contrast, has said nothing. Its PR reps won’t even respond to email and phone messages.

Internet privacy is an issue that freaks people out, and one that members of Congress love to pursue.

Today, however, reports surfaced that an Apple customer had written to Steve Jobs asking why Apple tracks user location data, and threatened to switch to a phone that runs Android, because, he said, “they don’t track me.”

The response from Jobs: “Oh yes they do. We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.”

But this doesn’t really clear things up. Apple needs to come up with a better explanation.

Last week one blog suggested Apple devices were storing this location data because of a bug, or an “oversight.” That seems hard to believe. It may be, however, that the location-tracking software serves a useful purpose and won’t harm anyone. If so, Apple should make the case for that.

One thing Apple can’t do is continue to say nothing. Internet privacy is an issue that freaks people out, and one that members of Congress love to pursue, if only because it gets them such great publicity.

By stonewalling, Apple is needlessly making things worse for itself. The company needs to tell everyone exactly what it is doing, and why. Clearly it owes that much to the people who are paying for its products.

It’s the right thing to do. And, with Congress breathing down Apple’s neck, it’s now the only thing to do.

Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.

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