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Summary:

Sen. Al Franken and Sen. Richard Blumenthal are introducing a new bill to protect the rights of mobile users when it comes to location information. If passed, the bill will require that mobile platform operators, carriers and developers ask permission before sharing info with third parties.

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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.

  1. Will this apply to cars as mobile devices as well? It seems that the Nissan Leaf is even more reckless in this regard.
    http://www.allcartech.com/news/1061458_security-breach-nissan-leaf-shares-your-location-speed

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  2. This is nothing but political posturing on the part of Franken. Yes, it was discovered that Apple’s iPhone stored location information in an unencrypted file until a recent update, but big deal! Of what use would this info be to anyone except a jealous spouse–if they knew how to access it?

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  3. John Dingeler Wednesday, June 15, 2011

    I notice that the NSA, the CIA, and all of the other, well-funded spy agencies are apparently exempt from notifying you of their collection services.

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  4. Personally, I think our legislative and executive branches are quick to point the finger at anyone other than themselves and their anti-American moves of late, which all started around 2000 and have gotten progressively worse. Rush to sign the patriot act renewal, then point to Apple as if THEY are ‘big brother’.

    Google, maybe, they make their living by selling information about you. But certainly not Apple. This was totally blown out of proportion, just like ‘Antennagate’ it is all based on nonsense and half truths. The Apps on the iPhone (and even the rip offs like Android follow suit here) all ask for your permission to use your location. In many cases, it’s extremely useful, for example, in tagging your photos to a specific location.

    Google is all about taking your information and monetizing it. I don’t see this sort of behavior with Apple at all, however. It’s one thing to share your location together with your ID. It’s quite another to sell aggregated location information, such as that 1000 people were using our app in this location last week, etc…

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