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Senator Calls FTC to Probe Apple and Google on Mobile Privacy



Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has never met a chance to get in the headlines that he didn’t like.

His latest effort comes in the form of a letter to the FTC chair and wants the agency to look into mobile phone privacy in general. He has “specific” concerns that he was certainly briefed on (I wonder if he has truly experienced anything himself) but in the end this is likely to bring Apple into the fray (which they usually steer clear of somehow) while just bringing Google to another hearing in DC. Here are the contents of the letter courtesy of the Times Herald-Record

Dear Chairman Leibowitz,

I write today to ask the Federal Trade Commission to investigate a disturbing and potentially unfair practice in the smartphone application market. We have seen a number of reports recently about apps that are leaking user data without user knowledge. Specifically, there have been reports about apps which allow a user’s photos, videos, location data, and address books not only to be accessed by the app (and its developers) but also copied in their entirety and used for marketing or other purposes. These uses go well beyond what a reasonable user understands himself to be consenting to when he allows an app to access data on the phone for purposes of the app’s functionality.

It is my understanding that many of these uses violate the terms of service of the Apple and Android platforms through which the apps are marketed and sold. However, it is not clear whether or how those terms of service are being enforced and monitored. In fact, the abuses of apps have only come to light as a result of the work of intrepid independent researchers and technologists. As a result, it is users and their privacy who suffer.

Under your leadership, the FTC has played a critical role in monitoring the evolving privacy issues in the smartphone and online market place, for example with your recent report on apps and children’s privacy. I am confident that you will continue that great work by bringing your resources and expertise to bear in addressing this alarming new trend. Specifically, I hope you will consider launching a comprehensive investigation to explicitly determine whether copying or distributing personal information from smart phones, without a user’s consent, constitutes an unfair or deceptive trade practice. In addition, I believe smartphone makers should be required to put in place safety measures to ensure third party applications are not able to violate a user’s personal privacy by stealing photographs or data that the user did not consciously decide to make public.

Sincerely,
Charles E. Schumer

While the letter comes off without mentioning anyone in particular, it’s his press release where the Senator shows who he is targeting, why and manages to include one of the rare uses of the term “willy-nilly” from a US Senator that I am aware of. Way to go Sen. Schumer, how can’t New Yorkers be proud?

“According to reports by independent technologists, two separate loopholes, one in the Apple operating system and one in the Android operating system, allow apps to gather users’ photos.

“In the case of Apple, if a user allows the application to use location data, which is used for GPS-based applications, they also allow access to the user’s photo and video files that can be uploaded to outside servers. In the case of Android-based applications, the user only needs to allow the application to use Internet services as part of the app for third parties to gain access to photo albums.

” “It sends shivers up the spine to think that one’s personal photos, address book, and who-knows-what-else can be obtained and even posted online – without consent. If the technology exists to open the door to this kind of privacy invasion, then surely technology exists to close it, and that’s exactly what must happen. The rapid innovation in technology, which is wonderful, must not also become an open invitation to violate people’s privacy willy-nilly. When a consumer makes a private phone call or sends a letter the old fashioned way, they have a very reasonable expectation that the communication is private. The same standard must apply to our new technologies, too,” continued Schumer.

This action should come as no surprise to anyone considering the nature of the accusations that have been flying around regarding third party apps and access to smartphone information. On many levels I agree with this concern. There is literally no reason for any app to need access or have access to photos on my phone. It’s one of the main reasons that I have been paying close attention to exactly what apps are looking to access on my machines. I guess I miss out on a lot of stuff because I am just not comfortable giving up information to be entertained or somewhat informed.

So we’ll keep an eye on this latest development in the technology companies go to Washington, DC show. No idea how this one might end myself. Any thoughts?

  • http://HubSpot Corey Eridon

    I don’t know whether this probe has repetitive or not, but I think the spirit is in the right vein. I too am very conscious on the apps I use because of privacy concerns, and as such don’t tend to use a lot of apps since many of them require that I give up far too much control over my information. I’m not against an app accessing pertinent information, but it has to be just that…pertinent to the function of the app.

  • http://www.affinitytrack.com Ron

    I can’t take credit for the line but to repeat a commentator’s view I recently heard … “the most dangerous place in Washington is between Chuck Schumer and a TV camera.” From what I can tell there may be some truth to this.

    • http://www.frankthinking.com Frank Reed

      Being from the Tri-State area I am well aware of Mr. Schumer’s “techniques” and that commentator nailed it. I do have concerns but I also have concerns of too much government intervention in the free market. It’s a balancing act that no one has seemed to figure out and maybe never will.

  • Michael Sherman

    With all this in mind, FTC Staff Attorney Kenneth H. Abbe and State of California Special Assistant Attorney General Travis LeBlanc will be speaking the 6th annual Digital Kids Conference in Los Angeles on April 25 – 26, 2012. Both will be speaking in the Safety and Privacy in Mobile Apps session during the Digital Kids Safety Track. http://digitalkidscon.com/ has the details.
    In light of their recent commitments to step up enforcement in this area, Abbe and LeBalanc will address the unique set of safety and privacy concerns the mobile space presents for children and how new Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act requirements could affect compliance. They’ll help the operators of social networks, online games, mobile apps, virtual worlds, and related products and services spot risks and advise what companies need to know to develop kid-friendly apps on multiple platforms.