Franken pushes Apple, Google toward privacy policies for apps

In a follow-up letter, U.S. Sen. Al Franken tells Apple and Google he wants them to require that all apps in their app stores have privacy policies--especially location-based apps.

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
Sen. Al Franken Sen. Al Franken

U.S. Sen. Al Franken wants Apple and Google to require that apps clearly detail their privacy policies so users can better understand what information is being collected.

Franken (D-Minn.) sent a letter (PDF) to Apple CEO Steve Jobs and Google CEO Larry Page this morning thanking them for sending company representatives to his hearing on mobile privacy earlier in the month. Franken also followed up on a request made during that hearing to make privacy policies "clear and understandable," saying there was work to be done to get that information out there in the first place.

"Unfortunately, neither of your companies requires that apps on your stores have a privacy policy. As a result, a significant portion, and potentially a majority of apps, on your stores lack privacy policies," Franken wrote. Consumers "want more transparency and control about who is getting their information, how it is being used, and who it is being shared with."

Franken cited studies by TRUSTe and Harris Interactive, as well as The Wall Street Journal, which noted that many popular applications did not contain links to privacy policies, with others not having a policy to begin with.

"Requiring that each app in your stores have a clear, understandable privacy policy would not resolve most of the privacy concerns in the mobile market," Franken wrote. "But it would be a simple first step that would provide users, privacy advocates, and federal consumer protection authorities a minimum of information about what information an app will access and how that app will share that information with third parties."

Franken's hearing earlier this month followed the high-profile coverage of the location database discovered in Apple's iOS. That tracking file, which contained information about Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers, was well-known in the forensics and law enforcement community, but questions arose as to what Apple's intentions were.

Following a flurry of media and government attention to the matter, Apple explained that the file was a smaller part of a location database used by its devices to more quickly determine their location. Apple also tipped its strategic hand slightly in mentioning that the company had plans to use the file to provide detailed traffic information as part of a future service. Apple then drastically scaled back on the size of the database that's stored on the device, as well as taking measures to let users delete any local database files, along with promising to encrypt the information in a future iOS update.

Besides Apple, Google and Facebook were called to provide testimony at not only Franken's hearing but also at a separate subcommittee hearing, which took place last week. That hearing also focused on location privacy and its place on mobile devices.

Like Apple and Google, Microsoft collects records of the physical locations of customers who use its mobile operating system, though it has not been targeted in any Senate committee hearings.

Franken closed his letter by saying that "at minimum" Apple and Google should require location-aware apps to have privacy policies that spell out what location information is being collected, how it's being used, and how it's shared with third parties.

"Apple and Google have each said time and again that they are committed to protecting users' privacy," Franken wrote. "This is an easy opportunity for your companies to put that commitment into action."