Two weeks ago, Apple and Google were called to answer growing concerns over privacy practices before Senate lawmakers. Today, executives from both companies responded to questions in a Senate hearing, but did little to alleviate our fears of user tracking.

iphone.jpgThe tracking of smartphones and their users’ activities is a scary thought.  We know that certain websites use invasive tracking cookies to store user behavior. With smartphones it’s worse. They can do the same thing, but you can’t hide behind an ambiguous IP address – your phone identifies exactly who you are, every time. For example, an iPhone app that uses the device’s GPS feature stores (and probably transmits without your knowledge) any locations you visit – your home, the office, restaurants, your child’s school.

On April 25th, Minnesota Democrat Al Franken, chairman of a new Senate Judiciary subcommittee focused on technology and privacy issues, wrote to Apple’s Steve Jobs. He asked, “why Apple is collecting the data, how it is generated, why it’s not encrypted, and why Apple customers were never affirmatively informed of the collection and retention of their location data.”

At today’s hearing, Apple responded with this: “Apple is deeply committed to protecting the privacy of all our customers,” and said that the company plans to decrease how much personal location information is stored. Later in the day, Apple stated that the collection resulted from a “bug” that was fixed last week and that it has never recorded users’ location data. Whether or not Apple is changing its story remains unclear, but the potential for such tracking is already in place. Perhaps Apple does not track users, but it has been found that plenty of popular apps in its store do.  

Aside from promises to stop recording user data, nothing has been done to conclusively address the future of tracking practices, despite Apple’s fixing of a mysterious “bug” and continued monitoring of apps in its App Store, according to the Wall Street Journal. Apple does not currently require apps to display privacy policies and developers of third-party software are free to do what they like with our data. This is a serious privacy issue, one that may be news to most users, and, as Franken further states, “our federal laws do far too little to protect this information.”