May 11, 2011, 5:23 PM

Mobile privacy lands on a Senate committee’s agenda

Senators react to the furor over surreptitious tracking of mobile devices.

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Prompted by concern over location tracking by smartphones, the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee will hold a hearing this month about mobile privacy and consumer protection.

Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV, D-WV, the committee chairman, called the hearing after researchers discovered hidden location-data files on iPhone and Android smartphones. The hearing is not yet on the committee’s schedule for May.

“Modern technology has connected people around the world and led to great innovations, helpful products and new experiences,” Rockefeller says. But the advent of this technology has created problematic issues, he adds.

Consumers increasingly disclose sensitive information as they use mobile web sites and apps to make purchases and access other services. It recently was discovered that as they move from place to place, some smartphones record the locations and store them in an unencrypted file on the hardware.

“Consumers deserve to know exactly what information is being collected about them, how it is being used, and should be able to say no to undesired collection of information,” Rockefeller says. “Concentration in the mobile platform market raises further concerns about whether or not competition will drive pro-consumer practices."

Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, foresees this and similar inquiries resulting in better privacy laws. The center is an advocate for stronger privacy and consumer protection measures.

“There’s a lot of concern over breaches, profiling and tracking,” Rotenberg says. “The question, of course, is where do we end up.”

Recognizing the need for balance, Rotenberg says the optimal results are measures that foster mobile commerce while enabling consumers to control who knows what about them.

Rotenberg says privacy and consumer protection laws typically follow the adoption of a new technology, as happened with the telephone and later with e-mail. “Typically, it takes a little bit for laws to catch up,” he says.

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