Phones Become Government Spies

Posted by Sam Churchill on

The U.S. Department of Justice today called for new laws requiring mobile providers to collect and store information about their customers. Their proposal pits it against privacy advocates and even other federal agencies.

Jason Weinstein, the deputy assistant attorney general for the criminal division, testified at a U.S. Senate hearing this week that arose out of revelations about iPhones recording information about owners’ locations, and, in some cases, transmitting those data to Apple without consent.

Weinstein said, “when this information is not stored, it may be impossible for law enforcement to collect essential evidence.” In January, CNET was the first to report that the Justice Department had started a new legislative push for what is generally known as mandatory data retention.

Apple and Google executives were among the witnesses questioned by a Senate subcommittee today, regarding consumer location data collected and stored by mobile devices.

Officials with Apple and Google defended their companies’ privacy policies to a skeptical Senate panel that is looking into the issue of the iPhone and Android-based smartphones collecting location data on the users.

Google’s Director of Public Policy Alan Davidson said in a statement (pdf), “even after opting in, we give users a way to easily turn off location sharing with Google at any time they wish.”

Bud Tribble, VP of Software Technology at Apple said in a statement (pdf), “Apple does not track users’ locations – Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

Both Apple’s iPhones and Google’s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google, according to data and documents analyzed by The Wall Street Journal.

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner.

The Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden at Where 2.0 said over a years worth of GPS tracking data was found on their iPhones.

Law enforcement agencies have known since at least last year that an iPhone or iPad surreptitiously records its owner’s approximate location, and have used that geolocation data to aid criminal investigations.

In other news, the FCC is expanding its emergency alert system sent over TV and radio to include mobile phones.

Dubbing the new service PLAN (Personal Localized Alerting Network), the government would target the alerts in the form of text messages sent to cell phones of people who need or want to be notified in the event of an emergency. Developed by FEMA, it would allow customers of any participating wireless carrier to turn their phones into personal alert systems.

Also called the Commercial Mobile Alert System, it will initially launch in New York City by the end of this year but is expected to roll out nationwide in 2012 through support from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.

“What this allows us to do is have the phone know where it is at that moment, and if a broadcast goes off in that area, it’ll go to all the phones in that area,” said FEMA Administrator W. Craig Fugate.

To receive the alerts, a mobile phone must be outfitted with a certain hardware chip, typically found in higher-end phones like the newer iPhone, according to The New York Times. A software upgrade is also required.

I feel safer already.

Posted by Sam Churchill on Tuesday, May 10th, 2011 at 12:26 pm .

Leave a Reply