Today's mobile phones can double as a GPS, a restaurant finder, a video game system or a social media hub. Those technological leaps over the past few years have brought the world to users' fingertips, but at what cost?
The same technology also can gather detailed data profiles of users to share with outside advertisers, transmitting a user's location, age, gender and even the phone's contacts back to cell phone companies and third parties — all without the user's knowledge.
Sen. Al Franken and others in Congress, alarmed at revelations that phones store such data, have called for hearings to examine whether more privacy laws are needed. On Tuesday, representatives from Apple Inc. and Google Inc. will testify.
"The basic thing is really to protect people's right to know who's gathering what information about them," said Franken, chairman of the recently created Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, which is leading the hearings.
The information gathering creates a dilemma for application makers, since the most popular mobile programs need location and other data to function properly. Pinpoint location data is what allows cell phone users to find one another on FourSquare or locate a store or restaurant through Google Maps or Yelp.
"I definitely feel like it's a double-edged sword," said Nic Schlueter, co-founder of app-development company Chalk. "I don't know how to control it and allow consumers to have the flexibility and convenience they've come to rely on with smartphones."
The mobile market is expanding rapidly. U.S. mobile ad revenue reached an estimated $550 to $650 million in 2010, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, an online advertising trade association. A Morgan Stanley report found smartphone sales will outpace sales of desktop and laptop computers combined by 2012.
Morgan Reed, executive director of the Association for Competitive Technology, an e-commerce trade association, said the user data collection is not new. "The amount of data a single mobile app collects is tiny compared to what Safeway knows about you if you have a card," said Reed, whose organization will testify at Tuesday's hearing.
But Franken and privacy advocates say smartphones get more details than other methods of user data collection: Androids and iPhones have unique identifiers, and the location data they collect is richer because people typically carry their phones with them most of the time.
"All phones carry what's essentially a Social Security number," said Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's Project on Consumer Privacy, who will testify Tuesday. "With location, they get precise information, which can be scary. You don't necessarily want dozens of companies tracking where you go."
A Wall Street Journal article in December found that of 101 popular iPhone and Android apps, 56 transmitted the phone's unique ID to third parties without user consent while 47 transmitted the phone's location.
Franken declined to speculate on legislation he may propose after Tuesday's hearing, but he has hinted that apps' failure to disclose what user information is shared could be a ripe first target. "Certainly people just have the right to know what information is being shared about them," he said.
The Apple tracking controversy, coupled with a massive data breach by Sony's PlayStation Network last month, is putting Internet and mobile privacy in the spotlight and under the congressional microscope.
After reports that Apple was storing more than a year's worth of detailed data, the company issued a fix that cut storage time to only seven days. Apple also said its iPhones and iPads were not gathering exact location data.
William McGeveran, a University of Minnesota law professor specializing in the Internet and privacy, said the Apple incident is a wake-up call for people who didn't know what was happening.
"If you're an exceptionally private person, you're not checking in on FourSquare or tweeting up a storm," said McGeveran. "But you probably still are using your phone."
Schlueter said app makers worry that Congress will pass laws that wind up stifling innovation. "As an app developer, I don't trust that Congress can keep up with the technology any better than common sense and morals are sort of doing that now," Schlueter said.
A first step, he said, might be to require user consent before sharing data.
"As consumers, we need to say to ourselves 'This is what I'm receiving in exchange for my information about where I am,' " Reed said. "Is it worth it? Most say yes, especially the under-40 set."
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.