Congress probing iOS developers on user privacy, address books

Congress has sent another letter to Apple, as well as 33 mobile app developers on iOS, asking if, and how, they collect user information.

Josh Lowensohn Former Senior Writer
Josh Lowensohn joined CNET in 2006 and now covers Apple. Before that, Josh wrote about everything from new Web start-ups, to remote-controlled robots that watch your house. Prior to joining CNET, Josh covered breaking video game news, as well as reviewing game software. His current console favorite is the Xbox 360.
Josh Lowensohn
3 min read

After asking an Apple representative to appear in Washington to discuss the company's privacy policies regarding mobile devices, U.S. lawmakers have turned their attention to developers of third-party applications for Apple's iOS platform.

Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) today posted letters they sent to Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as to 33 high-profile, third-party companies with apps on Apple's iOS platform. Some of those companies include Twitter, Foursquare, Path, Pinterest, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

The letters cite last month's incident when third-party social app Path was found to be collecting user address book information without asking. That incident led to Apple announcing that such activities were in violation of its developer guidelines and that apps would not be allowed in the company's App Store if they exhibited that behavior.


In today's letters, the congressmen say they want to "better understand the information collection and use policies and practices of apps," though particularly ones that have a "social element."

Among the questions is a very point-blank one asking if developers have ever transmitted the contents of a user's address book, and if those developers had privacy systems in place ahead of Apple saying such behavior was a violation of its policies. It also asks about storage of said user information, and what exactly it was being used for.

As a result of privacy issues on mobile devices cropping up, Apple, Google, Microsoft, and other platform companies have agreed to require app developers to have privacy policies for their software going forward. That move was pushed by California Attorney General Kamala Harris.

Nonetheless, this volley of letters is the latest effort by Congress to extract information from Apple about its privacy policies, and the first in this matter to do the same from a wide group of third-party developers. Last month, Waxman and Butterfield sent a letter just to Cook, asking Apple to clarify its privacy policies with regard to the data apps can collect.

After receiving a response, the congressmen last week sent a follow-up letter to Cook, saying the reply they received did not answer all their questions, as well as adding new questions about additional data-privacy concerns. That request also asked for Apple to send a company representative to appear in person before the Energy and Commerce Committee, versus sending in another written response.

This is not the first time third-party app developers have been included in a Congressional investigation into Apple's policies. This time last year, Apple, along with Google and Research in Motion were targeted for allowing applications that alerted users to the presence of police and other law enforcement checkpoints that had been set up to combat drunk driving. While some of these policies were changed and apps removed, some were left alone after removing offending features.

The developers have until April 12, 2012, to return the information to the Committee on Energy and Commerce, the letters say.