- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 10, 2011

High-tech giants Google and Apple struggled to reassure lawmakers at a Capitol Hill hearing Tuesday that the companies can protect the privacy of mobile-device users, in light of recent reports that popular smartphones and tablet computers are secretly storing data on the whereabouts of customers.

“Right now, what we face is a Wild West as far as the Internet is concerned,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, at a hearing of the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy, technology and the law. He was one of a number of senators who indicated new safeguards might be necessary to keep pace with evolving mobile technology.

But Alan Davidson, Google director of public policy, told the panel that location applications can have “enormous benefits” for consumers. They can provide real-time traffic updates and weather reports, and can tell users the location of the nearest gas station, hospital or police station.

“We’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible,” he said.

As mobile devices overtake personal computers in popularity, experts say it important to protect smartphones and tablet computer users from data breaches. Mobile devices present greater challenges than personal computers, because they travel with users and can be used to track a user’s location.

“I have not yet heard a model here today that is convincing to me,” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rhode Island Democrat, said of Google’s and Apple’s approach to data-sharing and security.

Congress is considering legislation that would prevent phone manufacturers and service providers from sharing user data, force them to beef up security so data can’t be stolen, and require them to notify consumers and law enforcement agencies when breaches occur.

The Federal Trade Commission and Justice Department testified in favor of those reforms before the subcommittee.

“I would venture to say that the vast majority of people are not as informed as they should be,” said Jason Weinstein, Justice Department deputy assistant attorney general.

Last week, two researchers found a secret file called “consolidated.db” thats stored on Apple’s iPhones and iPads and appears to keep a record of customers whereabouts dating back almost a year. The revelation sparked outrage among customers and online privacy groups.

Google got its own public relations black eye with missteps relating to its Google Buzz social-networking feature, as well as its inadvertent collection of data moving over unencrypted Wi-Fi networks.

Apple officials said they were addressing the problems and that the data comes in anonymously, so customers arent identified. The California-based company keeps a list of the Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers to which customers can connect. In some cases, these spots are as far away as 100 miles, so Apple can trace its customers general movements — but not their exact location.

But Sen. Al Franken, the Minnesota Democrat who chairs the subcommittee and called for the hearing in light of last week’s revelations, said he wasn’t persuaded.

“It doesn’t appear to me that both of those statements can be true at the same time,” he said at the hearing. “…Consumers are hearing this a lot from both Apple and Google, and I think it’s confusing.”

Apple officials did admit. however, there were several bugs that have now been fixed. In some cases, the anonymous data the devices were tracking dated to June 2010, when the iPhone 4 was released. Apple said it only needs to store one weeks worth of data.

Apple also said some customers were turning off the location systems, only to find they are still being tracked.

“This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly,” the company said in a statement last week.