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Sen. Franken holds Washington hearing on smart phone privacy issues

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Al Franken, Patrick Leahy
Senate Privacy, Technology and the Law subcommittee Chairman Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn. presides over the subcommittee's hearing on "Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy," Tuesday, May 10, 2011, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

While millions of Americans use Apple's iPhone and Google's Android smart phone software, U.S. Sen. Al Franken said most were unaware of the privacy implications of the devices.

"Very often when they get an app, they don't know the app can share lots of sensitive information about them with third parties," Franken, D-Minn., said.

That intersection of rapidly changing mobile technologies and the law is the focus of a hearing convened Tuesday by Franken in his role as a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee. 

For example, the privacy policy on the popular smart phone game Angry Birds states that the program will send information about the rough geographical area a user is located, as well as the type of phone and software being used back to the game's developer, which may share that information with advertisers.

While many Internet users using a laptop or desktop computer recognize that some information about them is collected by websites they visit, mobile technologies are even more sensitive because they can reveal a user's physical location, sometimes even putting people in danger.

"Very often when [people] get an app, they don't know the app can share lots of sensitive information about them with third parties,"

"The first people that got back to me were the Minnesota battered women's coalition," Franken said. "They said that this technology is frequently exploited by abusive partners."

Smart phones also use unique identification numbers to communicate with mobile networks, akin to Social Security numbers. That means companies are able to track individual users with far greater precision than they can for those who use traditional computers while online.

Franken's office contends that federal laws have not kept up with technology. For example, phone companies are not allowed to share a subscriber's location with third parties (except with law enforcement by warrant).

But court decisions have emphasized that the law does not apply to data, which means a cell phone carrier can share location information with third parties any time a user goes online with a smart phone.

The hearings come weeks after security researchers discovered that Apple iPhones contained an unencrypted file with detailed records of users' location over a six month period.

That revelation prompted Franken to send a letter to Apple and Google requesting information about their data collection practices and requesting that both companies send representatives to today's hearings.

Apple has since released a software update that saves far less location information.

Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president for software technology will testified, as did Google's director of public policy, Alan Davidson. 

The hearings are the first for the newly-convened Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, which Franken leads. 

The subcommittee also heard testimony from federal government experts, including Jessica Rich, who works on consumer protection issues for the Federal Trade Commission, and Jason Weinstein, a deputy assistant attorney general with the U.S. Department of Justice. 

"The default law in this country for sharing of data is you can do whatever you want," said privacy advocate Justin Brookman of the Center for Democracy and Technology in his testimony before the committee.

Apple and Google countered that even when they do collect data from their customers, that data is kept anonymous.

Not so, said independent security expert Ashkan Soltani, who helped research a recent series on this topic for the Wall Street Journal. 

"It's really difficult to call this stuff anonymous, making those claims is not I think really sincere," Soltani said.

 The mobile software industry was also represented by Jonathan Zuck of the Association for Competitive Technology.

Zuck was invited by the subcommittee's ranking member, Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla. 

Franken said the purpose of the hearings was to inform the public and fellow members of Congress about the technology and current state of the law. He anticipates a series of similar hearings before making a decision to introduce legislation.