Although concerns about locational privacy are hardly new, recent developments suggest that policymakers and government officials are taking a close look at the privacy issues raised when geolocation data is collected via smartphones.

  • The Wall Street Journal reports that a federal grand jury in New Jersey is probing the data collection practices of smartphone applications.  According to the article, one of the issues in the ongoing investigation is whether applications need information such as a user’s location, and whether applications adequately advise users that the data is being collected and why it is needed.  Online music service Pandora Media Inc., which received a subpoena for documents in early 2011, believes that “similar subpoenas were issued on an industry-wide basis to the publishers of numerous other smartphone applications.” 
  • Reps. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Joe Barton (R-TX), co-chairmen of the House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, sent letters last week to the four major U.S. wireless carriers, asking them to explain how they collect, use, and store cell phone data.  Among the issues being examined: what mechanisms are used to determine the location of a mobile phone, the purpose of these mechanisms, and the procedures used to obtain express prior authorization if customers’ location information is used for commercial purposes.  A copy of the letter is available here.  Reps. Markey and Barton’s inquiry was prompted by this New York Times article, which described how a German cellphone carrier recorded and saved one customer’s longitude and latitude coordinates more than 35,000 times in a six-month period.
  • Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) is reportedly preparing legislation that would provide greater protection for geolocation information.  Under the proposed Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance Act, or GPS Act, law enforcement officers would be required to obtain search warrants in order to wirelessly track the locations of cars and cell phones; individuals whose location data was illegally intercepted or used could sue for actual or statutory damages. As Sen. Wyden noted in an interview, “everyone is walking around with a handheld electronic device. And if you go out and ask these people about everybody collecting vast amounts of information about them that is really quite accurate and quite detailed, most people on the street would say, what’s the deal here?  How’s my privacy going to be protected?”
  • In its December 2010 staff report, the Federal Trade Commission noted that retention of location-based data “and its use to build consumer profiles . . . raise[] important privacy concerns.  For instance, the retention of location information about a consumer’s visits to a doctor’s office or hospital over time could reveal something about that consumer’s health that would otherwise be private.”  The FTC staff recommended that companies seek affirmative express consent before collecting, using, or sharing precise geolocation data.