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Congress: Tech companies protecting privacy?

Congress wants to know: Are smartphones getting so smart that they're stealing information about you and your location?

May 19, 2011 12:00:00 AM PDT
Congress wants to know: Are smartphones getting so smart that they're stealing information about you and your location? Some top company officials were questioned Thursday in Washington.

Are the country's leading tech companies doing enough to protect our privacy? That was the question today on Capitol Hill as lawmakers pressed top executives from Google, Apple and Facebook about whether they're doing their part to keep personal, confidential information safe. Lawmakers say it's time these companies come down on the side of common sense.

Thursday's hearing on Capitol Hill comes one week after the news that certain Android and Apple smartphones were recording information about their users and locations, then sending that information to Apple and Google without clear consent. Government officials say that needs to change.

"They ought to know with whom that information is going to be shared and be able to reject or accept those practices," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.).

"Simply translating that to the smartphone world where a consumer might have to click through a dozen, two or three dozen screens to read a privacy policy doesn't make sense," said David Vladeck, director of the Bureau of Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission.

Vladeck says his agency is working to make sure high-tech companies make privacy a priority.

"We've called for simple, clear and concise disclosures that tell consumers the fundamental information they need to know," said Vladeck. "What data is being taken, for what purpose and by whom."

Apple's Catherine Novelli says that Apple goes to great lengths to disclose exactly what information is being gathered by all of their products.

"We require all third-party application developers to adhere to specific restrictions protecting our customers' privacy," said Novelli.

Google executives also said that location sharing on Android devices is only applied to users who give their explicit consent.

A top official from Facebook was also called to testify at Thursday's senate subcommittee. He says privacy is important but so is the ability to market new products.

"We understand that trust is the foundation of the social web," said Facebook Chief Technology Officer Bret Taylor. "People will stop using Facebook if they lose trust in our services. At the same time, overly restrictive policies can interfere with the public's demand for new and innovative ways to interact."

The FTC is currently preparing a report on privacy policies and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) has already drafted a "Do Not Track" bill that would curb warrantless access to location histories by police.

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