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Congress looks at mobile location services and privacy

Location-based mobile services have captured the attention of regulators and lawmakers who want to know more about how firms such as Foursquare, Twitter, and Apple are using geographic data to provide new services and whether the information is being shared with business partners, including advertisers.

On Thursday at 10 a.m., a House Judiciary subcommittee will examine how location-based services are being tapped by law enforcement authorities to compile data on cellphone users. The hearing by Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties will be the panel's second on proposed updates to the Electronic Communications Privacy Act of 1986. The updates are aimed at accounting for the wave of new technologies, such as location-based services and cloud computing, that have hit the marketplace in recent years.

The privacy law sets the standards for law enforcement access to technology and user information. But it is unclear how the law apply to newer Internet-based technologies-- a confusion that tech firms such as Microsoft would like to clear up. Some Internet and software companies argue that law enforcement authorities routinely request information on users, increasing the possibility of privacy-rights violations and creating a headache for firms that feel pressured to meet those demands.

Witnesses at the Thursday hearing include:

Matthew Blaze, an associate professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania; Michael Amarosa, senior vice president of public affairs for TruePosition; Richard Littlehale, special agency for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation; Marc Zwillinger, a partner at law firm Zwillinger Genetski; and Stephen Smnith, a U.S. magistrate judge for the southern distrct of Texas.

Earlier this week, media reports pointed to Apple’s privacy policy, which includes a disclosure that the company would start collecting location-based information as it launches a new mobile phone advertising platform. The company’s policy on location based services is not new and the company will automatically collect information unless a user opts out of that feature. When dowloading applications such as Foursquare, a users’ geographic information won’t be collected unless a user agrees to it. Other location-based applications, such as those offered by Twitter are also based on this opt-out model.

Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), in a bill he has proposed on consumer privacy, has drafted a clause that would continue to keep location-based data from being collected unless a users actively opts for that feature.

By Cecilia Kang  |  June 23, 2010; 8:00 AM ET
 
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