Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) introduced new legislation Wednesday that would required platform operators like Apple and Google, as well as app developers, to ask for explicit consent before sharing user location info with third parties. The bill is based on hearings held in May by the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law.
It looks like those hearings could result in more than just stern warnings and requests for mobile companies to voluntarily comply with its suggestions.
The Location Privacy Protection Act, as proposed by Franken and Blumenthal, would close a loophole that allows “smartphone companies, app companies and even phone companies offering wireless Internet service to freely share their customers’ location information with third parties without first obtaining customers’ consent.” Cable and phone companies are already barred from doing so, and Franken and Blumenthal think that restriction should apply to mobile users as well.
Apple’s iOS and Google Android apps already seek permission from users when an app wants to use their location information, but few users are aware that by granting permission, they are also allowing developers to share said info with other parties for marketing and other purposes. Nearly half of the top 101 apps for both iPhones and Android smartphones share a user’s location with third parties, a December 2010 investigation by the Wall Street Journal revealed.
Location-aware apps are now omnipresent, even when it isn’t immediately apparent why they should offer such functionality. And although there’s some indication that most users haven’t been particularly worried about how location data is used, alarm bells certainly started to ring after the discovery that Apple’s iPhone stored location information in an unencrypted file until a recent update.
It’s unclear what the implications of the bill will be if it becomes law. Most likely, app developers and platform operators like Apple will have to inform users every time an app or service wants permission to share your location information with third parties. This could theoretically be handled by an altered permissions alert upon app launch, but the bill would also apply to other instances, too. For instance, when you browse the Internet on your smartphone, your wireless provider is free to disclose location information about your whereabouts while browsing.
Regardless of whether you think location information is worth worrying about or not, the fact remains that increasing consumer awareness about how this info gets used can’t really be considered a bad thing. Developers might disagree however, as the ability to sell anonymized info to marketers can provide a key revenue stream. Still, let’s hope that if this bill does get passed, it results in changes that make mobile data collection more transparent for the average smartphone user.