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Lawmakers call for greater privacy protection laws for mobile phones

by Phil Hornshaw

Members of the U.S. Senate’s Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee are urging lawmakers to pass laws that will give wireless subscribers greater protection for their personal information, following controversy surrounding smartphones tracking user location and security breaches in their mobile apps.

A hearing that took place Thursday had representatives from Google (GOOG), Apple (AAPL) and Microsoft (MSFT) present to answer questions of the committee. A similar hearing took place a week ago before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, specifically addressing location tracking issues that were in the news last month.

During Thursday’s hearing, Democratic Senators John Kerry of Massachusetts and Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia called on lawmakers to set forth new laws that give mobile customers greater control over what is done with their information, according to a story from Fierce Mobile Content. Here’s a quote:

“‘These devices are not really phones--they are miniature computers,’ said Rockefeller, who chairs the Commerce Committee. ‘The mobile marketplace is so new, and technology is moving so quickly that many consumers do not understand the privacy implications of their actions.’ Rockefeller is also asking Apple, Google and the Association for Competitive Technology trade association to demonstrate that their applications are in compliance with children's online privacy law.”

Reps from Google and Apple maintained that their mobile devices only track a limited amount of data in order to improve the devices’ functionality. Apple recently ran up against controversy in the location arena when the knowledge became widespread that the iPhone 4 was cataloging all the location data logged by its GPS functionality – essentially creating a huge log of everywhere the phone had been. Apple called the tracking a bug and fixed it with an update to its iOS operating system, causing the cache of location data to be purged periodically (it’s still needed for apps that use the iPhone’s GPS capabilities).

Another issue that came up during the hearing was the presence of drunk driving checkpoint apps in the Android Market and Apple’s iTunes App Store. These are apps that identify the locations of police checkpoints to users, essentially helping them to be avoided by people who own the app.

Lawmakers have already questioned Google and Apple, as well as BlackBerry maker Research In Motion (RIMM), over the checkpoint apps. RIM immediately removed them from its store, but Google and Apple are still “looking into the situation,” according to a story from Ars Technica.

While Sen. Tom Udall, a democrat from New Mexico, asked why Google and Apple allow apps to persist in their stores that allow users to essentially break the law, Google’s representative said that apps that merely share information aren’t in violation of the Android Market policy. At least, not yet.

All told, that’s a lot of political pressure being placed on the app sphere. With the U.S. government weighing in, it’ll be interesting to see what changes, both positive and negative, start to trickle down to our smartphones and tablets.