Congressional committee quizzes Apple and Alphabet on data privacy practices

Donna Miller
July 10, 2018

House Committee on Energy and Commerce sends letters to Apple and Google asking how the companies protect users' privacy on iPhones and Android phones. For people who use those features, Apple has said it uses that data for a variety of purposes, including "provide you with geographically relevant ads on Apple News and in the App Store", according to its privacy policy.

The letters represent the latest effort by lawmakers in Washington to scrutinize how tech companies collect, use and share data on their consumers.

The Journal pointed to the case of Return Path, a marketing service that scans the inboxes of over two million users. But two years ago, the developer let employees review about 8,000 private unredacted emails to help them train the company's software.

In addition, the lawmakers have questions regarding the data collection occurring through smartphones.

The lawmakers also pressed both companies on whether their respective smartphone devices collect "non-triggered" audio information by tapping into users' conversations in order to determine when a user utters a "trigger" phrase - such as the "Hey Siri" command for Apple's Siri virtual assistant. However, the lawmakers are anxious that the smartphones may be also vacuuming up "non-triggered" data. Nebraska could be next state to vote on Medicaid expansion MORE (R-Ore.), cited a November report in Quartz alleging that Android devices collect location data on users even if location services and other network capabilities are disabled - information that is ultimately sent back to Google. This includes when devices are in "airplane mode" or have removed the SIM card - the small chip in cellphones that tie a phone to a particular person's plan.

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The latest point update of iOS comes nearly a month after Apple had released iOS 11.4 with some major audio focused improvements. With the lock in place, data cannot be transferred to or from the Lightning port; it can only be used for device charging.

"It has also been suggested that third party applications have access to and use this "non-triggered" data without disclosure to users", the letters add.

Previously, Apple has said that it uses tools like Global Positioning System and bluetooth to determine a device owner's location if a user has enabled that functionality.

Google, for its part, confirmed to Quartz previous year that its Android devices previously had been transmitting location information back to the company even in instances in which users had turned off that functionality. "We look forward to answering the Committee's questions".

An Apple spokesman declined to comment.

The letters asked both companies to respond to questions by July 23 and to brief committee staffers on issues raised. The letters were signed by Greg Walden of Oregon, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Gregg Harper of MS, and Bob Latta of Ohio.

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