Feds Chide Tech Companies For Collecting Americans' Geo-Locations; Then Express Interest in Doing The Same

By Tracey E. Schelmetic May 13, 2011

You’ve got to admire the frequent two-facedness of the federal government. This week, while the Senate was busy hand-slapping tech giants Google and Apple for collecting the geo-location data of Americans using iPhones, iPads and Android phones, the Department of Justice (DOJ) was busy considering laws that would require that wireless carriers do just that: collect and store subscriber location data that could be used in criminal investigations. (As in, “No, officer, I wasn’t anywhere NEAR that liquor store when it got robbed. I was having dinner with my Auntie.”)

InformationWeek has reported that Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the DOJ, testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law this week, indicating that “it would be useful if companies that have access to smartphone location data could provide that information lawfully to criminal investigators.”

The DOJ is particularly keen on the location data as it pertains to investigations about cyber crimes that target mobile devices, child abductions and others in which a mobile phone user’s location is crucial, said Weinstein.

“Even though we encounter users who use their smartphones and devices as they would use a computer, many wireless providers do not maintain the records necessary to trace the IP address to a smartphone,” said Weinstein. “Law enforcement must be able to get the data it needs to identify these crimes successfully and identify the perpetrators.”

Ironically, Weinstein’s testified during a hearing led by Senator Al Franken, (D-MN) that was to address concern over how location data collected from mobile devices could be misused to invade smartphone user privacy, said InformationWeek.

If you were an executive from Google or Apple, you could be excused for being a little confused by the “do as I say, not as I do” message from the federal government. For their part, Google and Apple told government officials that they are committed to protecting user privacy from the misuse of geo-location technologies contained in many of today’s phones and tablets. Geo-location technologies, of course, are central to many of the services tech companies and wireless carriers offer to subscribers: mapping and navigation, location-based social networking (think Foursquare) and geographically targeted shopping.

Franken has expressed discomfort with this blanket ability to track subscribers, though he says he sees the upside of the technologies. “No one wants Apple or Google to stop producing their products – you guys are brilliant,” said Franken. He stressed that everyone involved needs to “find a balance between all those wonderful benefits and the public’s right to privacy.”

It’s apparently the same ability that the Justice Department wants to use to track criminals, making one wonder a bit how, exactly, that would work.




Tracey Schelmetic is a contributing editor for TechZone360. To read more of Tracey's articles, please visit her columnist page.

Edited by Jennifer Russell

TechZone360 Contributor

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