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Franken holds hearing on mobile privacy

Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken and Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy greet Apple Vice President of Software Technology Guy "Bud" Tribble before Tuesday's hearing.
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Subcommittee Chairman Al Franken and Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy greet Apple Vice President of Software Technology Guy “Bud” Tribble before Tuesday’s hearing.

WASHINGTON — A northern Minnesota woman seeking refuge from her abuser walked into a domestic violence shelter inside a county building in northern St. Louis County. Within five minutes, she got a text message from her abuser, asking why she was there.

Terrified, she filed for an order of protection against him, and with the help of a victim’s advocate went to a local courthouse to do it.

Just after she filed for protection, another text message arrived on her smart phone. Again from her abuser, this time asking her pointedly why she was in the courthouse and if she was filing an order of protection against him.

“The only device the woman had on her was her smart phone,” officials from the National Network to End Domestic Violence and Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women wrote to Sen. Al Franken. “They later concluded that her abuser was tracking her via a location tracking application or service on her phone.”

That was the first testimony Franken received after he called for a hearing on location tracking in smart phones, following the revelation that both Apple and Google-backed smart phones have stored location data in unencrypted formats.

And that’s the sort of horror story lawmakers say they want to prevent as they consider legislation specifically directed at location-specific data on smart phones.

On the other hand, whole industries that couldn’t have existed 10 years ago have sprung up thanks to smart phones being able to determine their own locations.

Walk down Nicollet Mall in Minneapolis and an app can tell you that the specific Target near you is having a sale, or get a coupon for half off an entrée at Brit’s Pub. Post your location on Foursquare, and perhaps you’d find out that a friend you haven’t seen in months is just down the way at the Dakota Jazz Club.

If you run into trouble and call 911, your phone knows roughly where you are and can direct emergency responders directly to you. And if you’re lost, Google Maps and other similar GPS-based software can not only tell you where you are, but give you directions to where you’re going.

“The whole thing for me is about striking the right balance,” said Franken, hours after wrapping up a hearing on privacy and mobile technology.

“I think everyone kind of agreed that there are problems,that the balance is out of whack, and we need to do something to adjust the balance — the question is what does that entail?”

Aiming for balance
Franken’s hearing was called after it was discovered that location data tracked by phones was being stored in unencrypted formats. As such, it was relatively easily accessible to anyone who cared to try and get it, which can be both a good and very bad thing. Those problems have now been or are being corrected, industry representatives said.

“Misuse of that kind of data can have real consequences for consumers,” said Jessica Rich, deputy director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

“If it falls into the wrong hands it can be used for stalking. Often talk about teen and children info. It’s collected over time — you can also tell what church they’ve gone to, what political meetings they’ve gone to, when and how they walk to school.”

But on the other hand, lawmakers seemed fully agreed that any legislation not overreach and stifle a growing industry that provides many benefits to its users, and relies on that location-based data.

So the question then: What legislation can walk down that middle road?

Sen. Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat who chairs the Judiciary Committee, said Tuesday he’s compiling legislation to update digital privacy laws so that they better cover mobile devices. The shape of that legislation is unknown right now

Among the recommendations the Department of Justice said they’d like to see in there: Rules that make it easier for law enforcement to access data that is otherwise made available to third parties, requiring immediate reporting of data breaches; and changing a law that limits some cybercrimes to cases where victims and perpetrators are in different states.

Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, said his main concerns are that privacy disclaimers and terms of service are written in “plain English,” rather than “lawyerese.”

Possible legislation from Franken
Franken said he may introduce legislation of his own on mobile privacy.

Among the changes he’s considering: requiring companies who collect users’ personal data to store it securely and make a “good faith” effort to ensure it can’t be hacked.

“Then there might be some kind of law on telling people that you’re going to share something with third parties — if you’re going to share with third parties,” Franken said.

And finally, Franken said he’d like to see Apple, Google and other app store hosting firms require every app developer to have privacy policies of their own for their products. Executives from both Apple and Google told Franken they’d consider implementing those changes on their own.

Comments (11)

  1. Submitted by Ignatius Iggthorne on 05/11/2011 - 12:06 pm.

    Wow…I didn’t realize that Al was still in the Senate, other than there to vote party line. Good to see.

  2. Submitted by Bryan Dohla on 05/11/2011 - 12:35 pm.

    Frankly, I think Al Franken is a fine example of whats wrong with ideological party politics, BUT…..when it comes to the internet I have to give him kudos. He’s much more moderate (and resembles some common sense) than every issue the guy touches.

  3. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 05/11/2011 - 03:08 pm.

    Yes, Al votes “the party line”! That’s why we Dems turned out to vote for him, and thank heavens we did.

    The other party cheers on those that vote their way, no matter what the results are for the rest of us: the eight Cheney/Bush years showed us what happens when the R’s are in power and voting the way they are told.

    Al cares about the little guy, not only for corporate interests who bought and paid for their representatives in government to vote their way. The results of the R’s faithful votes to that constituency nearly destroyed the economy of the U.S. and that of the rest of the world. Time for Dems to right the wrongs, and starting with the daily problems we face, such as the right to privacy that Franken if fighting for, is a good way to fight the good fight.

  4. Submitted by Cecil North on 05/11/2011 - 03:11 pm.

    I appreciate Al’s efforts in this area, and data privacy is a huge issue that is growing by leaps and bounds. However, this article does a disservice by repeating misleading information about the specific issue relating to iPhones.

    To access the iPhone location information, such as it was (really just a database of nearby cell towers to enable the phone’s GPS to function more quickly), you needed to have actual, physical access to the iPhone or a computer to which the iPhone had been physically connected for data backup purposes. Thus, it is inaccurate to say that “it was relatively easily accessible to anyone who cared to try and get it ….”

    Such distinctions make all the difference between data that is reasonably well protected but could be protected better (as Apple has done in their updated software) and information handling processes that truly put people’s privacy and safety at risk.

  5. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 05/11/2011 - 09:14 pm.

    Al’s got Amy Klobuchar’s disease.

    Only people who fear and resent the private sector believe that every good idea needs to be codified in federal law.

  6. Submitted by Marcia Brekke on 05/12/2011 - 07:49 am.

    Only people who fear and resent the private sector believe that every good idea needs to be codified in federal law.

    To that I say, “Only people who fear and resent the government believe that every good idea needs to be confirmed by private enterprises who can pocket the exhorbitant profits that result from their “good” ideas.”

  7. Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/12/2011 - 08:00 am.

    Last week, at a MN House Ways & Means Committee meeting regarding placement of a marriage amendment on the 2012 ballot, I learned that our legislators are not multi-taskers, and we must not expect that of them.

    “Why are we taking up constitutional amendments when we have this huge deficit that we haven’t dealt with?” Rep. Lyndon Carlson, DFL-Crystal.”

    While we are engaged in three foreign wars, suffer persistent high unemployment, and are being crushed by massive debt and deficits, the issue of mobile phone privacy is foremost on the mind of the junior senator from MN.

    If you think that you have privacy on your mobile phone, you are either unaware or delusional.

  8. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/12/2011 - 10:52 am.

    Mr. Rose, the Junior Senator from Minnesota knows all that. No senator can spend time only on those major (and often international) problems, however, because there are other serious isses that affect Americans.

    Among them citizen privacy and net neutrality, where our Al shines. You’ll notice if your email messages don’t go through immediately and when your incoming mail isn’t received until the next day that net neutrality is not unimportant.

  9. Submitted by Steve Rose on 05/12/2011 - 12:18 pm.


    I point you back to my quote of DFL Representative Carlson, and others in the DFL that are telling the majority party legislators in the MN House and Senate that they cannot deal with other issues due to the budget and due to jobs issues.

    Which is it? Is the left going to attempt to play it both ways?

    P.S.: You should check with your ISP. I have never had difficulty sending or receiving emails. I do understand that like mobile phone communication, emails are not secure communication.

  10. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 05/15/2011 - 09:21 am.

    Mr. Rose – This discussion is about national issues, not the Minnesota legislature.

    If you’re not aware of the threat to internet privacy and service, you might want to google “net neutrality” and/or visit Al Franken’s website.

    The FCC recently voted to allow Comcast to purchase NBC/Universal – making it not just a content delivery service via cable TV but the determiner, as owner of NBC News et all, of much of that content. It may also be your telephone company and your internet service provider.

    Comcast will be able to slow “ordinary” emails in favor of commercial clients who pay them big bucks. It will also have records, in case the FBI asks for them, of everyone you talk to by phone and every internet site you visit.

    One FCC commissioner who voted to allow the merger is leaving the FCC to take a high-paying job with Comcast. She is under investigation and may be charged with a criminal act. (As she should be.)

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