Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) may be after answers from Steve Jobs, but this isn’t the first time lawmakers have been curious about Apple’s use of location information. Last year, Congressmen Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Tex.) sent a letter to Jobs about similar issues and received a letter from Apple SVP and General Counsel Bruce Sewell. In the letter, Sewell provides answers to at least some of Franken’s new round of questions.
While Sewell doesn’t address the local, unencrypted storage of location information anywhere in his response to Markey and Barton, he does clearly outline Apple’s location data use policy and the methods the company uses to gather said data. So, at least partial answers to a good portion of Franken’s questions are already on record.
Sewell describes Apple’s reasoning behind collecting location data, which is “to enhance and improve the services we can offer to our customers,” and also with whom Apple shares the data. Those parties include only Apple’s application developer licensees (with whom Apple only shares the data once a user has given their explicit consent that it be allowed to do so), and Apple’s external mapping database partners, which are used for location services on older devices. Apple shares only “anonymous, non-identifying location information” with those partners in order to improve service.
Sen. Franken also asked about whether laptops collect location data. Sewell lists explicitly which devices collect location data, and the list includes “Mac computers running Snow Leopard and Windows or Mac computers running Safari 5.”
Sewell’s letter also explains how the data is generated and when. Wi-Fi access point, cell tower and GPS information are all used to determine location, and data from each is collected when apps approved to use said data are actively running. Anonymous data “may also be collected when an iPhone is using GPS to search for a cellular network,” writes Sewell.
As I mentioned, the letter does not address those questions Sen. Franken asked that specifically involve the local, unencrypted storage of location data. For instance, Franken asked “Why is this data not encrypted? What steps will Apple take to encrypt the data?” Apple also hasn’t specifically addressed the question of why consumers aren’t informed about local data storage, or asked for consent for that particular type of location information usage.
Turns out I was wrong when I wrote earlier that “there are no definite answers” to Franken’s questions. Just goes to show how quickly information can get lost or forgotten in the age of the Internet. You can read the letter from Sewell in full below.