Apple called before Senate subcommittee; location lawsuit already filed

by Phil Hornshaw

The fallout from the disclosure of Apple’s unencrypted location data tracking in its iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads continues to mount, with both Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) called before a Senate Subcommittee by Minnesota Democrat Al Franken.

Sen. Franken sent a two-page email to Apple following the release of information in which two researchers made public the existence of a file on iPhones and iPads in which all location data for the devices is saved long-term, essentially keeping track of every place a person goes with the device in tow. The information is apparently already being used by law enforcement agencies during investigations, according to one forensic researcher.

The revelation (it wasn’t exactly a discovery because the existence of the file was already known) has touched off a bit of a scandal, with lawmakers and law enforcement agencies looking sideways at Apple (and also Google) over potential customer privacy violations, and customers also crying foul.

This isn’t the first time mobile companies and specifically Apple and Google have gotten a stern talking to from the government over user privacy, but this incident might be the biggest to date. According to a story from Ars Technica, the the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law hearing on mobile privacy that the two companies are being called to attend will take place on May 10.

Here’s a quote from the Ars story that Sen. Franken gave in a statement:

“‘Recent advances in mobile technology have allowed Americans to stay connected like never before and put an astonishing number of resources at our fingertips,’ Franken said in a statement. ‘But the same technology that has given us smartphones, tablets, and cell phones has also allowed these devices to gather extremely sensitive information about users, including detailed records of their daily movements and location. This hearing is the first step in making certain that federal laws protecting consumers’ privacy—particularly when it comes to mobile devices—keep pace with advances in technology.’”

It’s likely Apple will finally have to say something in its own defense over this location-tracking debacle, though I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the company chose to go with the out presented by Apple blogger John Gruber from Daring Fireball and claim it was all a big mistake.

Somebody is already suing Apple location tracking

If the federal government wasn’t trouble enough, a couple of quick-penned iDevice owners have already filed a lawsuit against Apple for “covert” location tracking, claiming the company has broken the law.

That might not actually be true, seeing as there hasn’t really been any kind of investigation about whether the location tracking going on with the iPhone is, in fact, illegal, as is pointed out by a story from MobileCrunch. That story includes the whole lawsuit and cites a couple of interesting pieces of the iTunes and iPhone user licensing agreements: the iTunes agreement says that Apple reserves the right to collect user location data, while the iPhone agreement says that Apple may do so, but users can opt out at any time by turning off location services in their devices’ Settings menus.

The lawsuit, filed on April 20, tends to look a little opportunistic, especially given that Apple hasn’t even responded to say what the data is used for (if anything) and no investigation has determined if illegal action has been taken. That’s not to say a lawsuit is a bad idea -- if Apple is at fault for anything more than being inept or disrespectful of its customers, people have a right to sue -- but it’s a little early in the game to be running to court, given how little information is available.

Still, it’s another legal thorn in Apple’s side as part of an on-going situation filled with bad public relations. It’s doubtful this lawsuit will have any major effects on Apple, but there are sure to be more. And who knows, really, how any sort of legal battle could turn out, especially if this location data scandal escalates.