Apple iPhone Privacy Concern Response Leaves Lawmakers Leery

Apr 29th, 2011 | By | Category: Technology and Science

After a week of silent internal investigation, Apple responded publicly Wednesday to concerns about iPhone privacy. But some federal lawmakers are unhappy with the response, saying Apple representatives “lied” to them, and the Senate plans to hold hearings scrutinizing the Apple iPhone, Google Android, and other smartphones and mobile devices.

TN48 smartphone Apple iPhone Privacy Concern Response Leaves Lawmakers LeeryThe controversy began last Wednesday when security researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden announced discovering a privacy problem with iPhones. Allan and Warden reported that ever since iOS 4 was released in summer 2010, iPhones and iPhone computer backups have included a file that tracks data about the user’s location and personal habits. They stated that the data is stored unencrypted by default and is simple to access. This raised concerns about the potential risk of security breach and privacy invasion.

Upon hearing about this, Senator Al Franken sent Apple CEO Steve Jobs a letter echoing citizen concerns and asking Apple to respond to specific questions. Congressman Jay Inslee, Congressman Edward Markey, Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan, and European lawmakers also began inquiries.

Meanwhile, as investigations expanded to include other smartphone products, Google disclosed that its Android smartphone uses a location data caching system similar to Apple’s.

After a week of heading an internal investigation, Jobs replied Wednesday in an interview with the New York Times. Jobs acknowledged Apple had “made mistakes,” but assured Apple users, “We haven’t been tracking anybody. . . Never have. Never will.” He and other Apple representatives attributed security concerns to Apple failing to educate the public about the “incredibly complex” technology involved. The response was generally dismissive of concerns researchers and critics have raised, but did acknowledge a “bug” Apple says it will fix in a few weeks.

Apple emphasized that the iPhone file in question does not track users’ locations directly, but instead tracks the locations of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which Jobs said in another interview with All Things Digital “can be over 100 miles away from where you are.” This enables data to be cached and analyzed more quickly than if it were coming directly from GPS satellites.

Apple also stressed that while it uses customer phones as sensors to update its database of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers, it collects this data in an anonymous and encrypted form. It cannot use the data to identify or locate users, Apple said.

Apple did acknowledge some programming errors that stored the data for a year, kept the file unencrypted, and continued storing the data even after users had chosen to turn off location services. The company promises that updates will address this problem by limiting the iPhone location cache to seven days, ending cache backups onto personal computers, and deleting the cache entirely when users turn off location services.

Jobs said Apple will comply with Senator Franken’s request to testify before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law. Google has agreed to testify at the hearing.

Some commentators called this a step in the right direction. Others had more mixed reactions. Franken thanked Google and Apple for agreeing to appear, but said he still “has questions about what exactly happened here and why Apple didn’t tell users about what it was doing.” Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Markey had similar responses.

Representative Joe Barton was more direct, telling the Wall Street Journal that what Apple is acknowledging now contradicts what it told him in a letter last July. “When a member of Congress asks a straightforward question, reputable members of the business community should give a straightforward answer,” Barton said. “Apparently, they lied to us.”

The Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law hearing on Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy will be held in the 226 Dirksen Senate Office Building on Tuesday, May 10 at 10:00 am.

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