Written by Sen. Al Franken
In recent years, large corporations have started obtaining and storing increasingly large amounts of our personal information. We’ve seen the growth of a whole sphere of private entities whose entire purpose is to collect and aggregate information about each of us when we use the Internet.
Now, don’t get me wrong, the existence of this business model is not a bad thing. In fact, I think it’s usually a great thing. I love that I can use Google Maps — for free, no less, and check the local weather on my iPad.
But I think we need to strike a balance. And this means changing the way we think about privacy to account for this massive shift of our personal information into the hands of the private sector because the Fourth Amendment doesn’t apply to corporations. The Freedom of Information Act doesn’t apply to Silicon Valley.
I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them. I also believe that they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information, and with whom they want to share it and when. And I think we have those rights for all of our personal information.
This technology gives us incredible benefits. It allows parents to see their kids and wish them goodnight even when they are half a world apart. It allows a lost driver to get directions. And it allows emergency responders to locate a crash victim in a matter of seconds.
But the same information that allows us to do those things is not necessarily information all of us want to share all the time with the entire world. And yet reports suggest that the information on our mobile devices is not being protected in the way it should be.
In December, an investigation by the Wall Street Journal into 101 popular apps for iPhone and Android smartphones found that 47 of those apps transmitted the smartphone’s location to third party companies, and that most of them did this without their users’ consent.
Three weeks ago, security researchers discovered that iPhones and iPads running Apple’s latest operating system were gathering information about users’ location — up to 100 times a day — storing that information on the phone or tablet and copying it to every computer that the device is synced to.
Moreover, it turned out that both iPhones and Android phones were automatically collecting certain location information from users’ phones and sending it back to Apple and Google — even when people weren’t using location applications.
In each of these cases, most users had no idea what was happening. And in many of these cases, once users learned about it, they had no way to stop it.
These breaches of privacy can have real consequences for real people. A Justice Department report (pdf) based on 2006 data shows that each year, over 26,000 adults are stalked through the use of GPS devices, including GPS devices on mobile phones. That’s from 2006 — when there were a third as many smartphones as there are today.
And when I sent a letter to Apple to ask the company about its logging of users’ location, the first group to reach out to my office was the Minnesota Coalition for Battered Women. They asked, “How can we help?” Because they see case after case where a stalker or an abusive spouse has used the technology on mobilephones to stalk or harass their victims.
But it isn’t just stalking. The hearing showed that there is a range of harms that can come from privacy breaches. And there’s also the simple fact that Americans want stronger protections for this information.
In fact, right now, once the maker of a mobile app, a company like Apple or Google, or even your wireless company gets your location information, in many cases, under current federal law, these companies are free to disclose your location information and other sensitive information to almost anyone they please — without telling you. And then the companies they share your information with can share and sell it to yet others — again, without letting you know.
This is a problem. It’s a serious problem. It’s something the American people should be aware of, and it’s a problem that we should be looking at. However, I want to be clear that the answer to this problem is not ending location-based services. No one wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products or doing the incredible things that they do.
No. What Tuesday’s hearing was about was trying to find a balance between all of those wonderful benefits and the public’s right to privacy. This conversation will continue, but I think we’ve taken an important first step.