Apple, Google Privacy Hearing Marked By Confusion, Distractions

In a hearing marked by odd points and side-tracks, representatives from Google (NSDQ: GOOG) and Apple (NSDQ: AAPL) told a Senate committee today that their policies do, in fact, do a lot to protect users’ privacy. The hearing didn’t really answer many questions, and it ended with the Senator who called the hearing, Al Franken, emphasizing that he doesn’t believe privacy rights are being respected “in law or in practice.”

Apple Vice President Bud Tribble emphasized that the company went above and beyond in getting user permission before any smartphone apps accessed location data. He also repeated Steve Jobs’ assertion that iPhones don’t actually track their users-(somehow Apple employees believe that collecting a long list of cell tower information and WiFi hotspots doesn’t amount to tracking.)

Google was represented by its head of publicy policy, Alan Davidson. Davidson emphasized that location services on Android are all opt-in, and also repeated the party line about how valuable location services are for the tens of thousands of Americans that routinely use them. “It’s not just about convenience,” said Davidson. “Location-based services can let you know where to fill a prescription at one in the morning for a sick child.”

The hearing began with Franken hammering Steve Jobs’ double-talk on the location privacy issue. On the one hand, Jobs has been asying that the iPhone tracking file doesn’t really track users-but at the same time, the company has noted that the reason for the cache file is to speed up a phone’s ability to tell a user their location. “Mr. Tribble, it doesn’t appear to me that both of those statements can be true at the same time,” said Franken. “Does this data indicate anything about your location or doesn’t it?” Tribble answered that the location data sent to Apple “does not contain any customer information at all,” but simply lets that a user’s phone does “know” which hotspots and cell phone towers are in range.

And as for Apple’s talking point about how the cell phone tower could be 100 miles from a user-that’s only going to be true for a tiny subset of rural users. More typically, in urban areas, the phones can use public WiFi data to locate a user within 100 feet or less; and Ashkan Soltani, an independent privacy consultant who was at the hearing, pointed that out effectively.

But overall, Senators at the hearing seemed to want to harp on a broad range of grievances with Apple and Google-only some of which related to smartphones or privacy at all.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) went ahead and hammered Google over its accidental collection of private WiFi data, a privacy scandal that’s now more than two years old. He actually pulled out a Google patent application and seemed to be saying that it demonstrated Google intended to pull the private “payload” data as part of its plan to build better mapping services. Davidson was put on the spot because, no surprise, he hadn’t seen the patent application before, since Google files hundreds of patents each year. He emphasized that the company wasn’t ever going to use the data it had accidentally collected. “We intend to dispose of it in whatever form regulators tell us to,” he said. Ashkani and another independent privacy researcher both testified that the payload data wouldn’t be useful in map-building.

Update: A Google spokesman contacted me shortly after this post was published, offering this statement: “The technology in that patent has nothing to do with the collection and storage of payload data and is entirely unrelated to the software code used to collect WiFi information with Street View cars.”

Then it was Sen. Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) chance to go off-he went on a tirade against apps he said were enabling drunk driving. (Apparently these are apps that let smartphone users warn each other about the location of police checkpoints.) Blackberry maker Research In Motion had pulled these apps from their app store, but Schumer wanted to know why Apple and Google had refused to do so. Google representative Davidson said he would relay Schumer’s concerns to Google HQ, but that “apps that share information about sobriety checkpoints are not a violation of our content policy.”

Schumer asked: “Would you allow an app that offered specific directions on how to cook methamphetamine?”

Davidson: “It would be fairly fact specific. Apps that are unlawful or are directly related to unlawful activity, we do take those down.”

Schumer: “You agree this [drunk driving app] is a bad thing? And that it probably causes death?”

Davidson agreed that “it is a bad thing.”

Apple’s Tribble, meanwhile, assured Schumer that he “shares your abhorrence of drunk driving,” but said that some of the apps are publishing the same data that’s actually put out by police departments. “I’ve seen a map, for example, that says 9th and Geary in San Francisco, we’re going to be having a checkpoint. Schumer scoffed at that excuse. “I don’t know of a police department that, in real time, would publish where all the checkpoints would be. It would make no sense.”

Schumer: “You’ve pulled one [app] that has tasteless jokes. This is worse than that, don’t you think?”

Tribble: “If they intend to encourage people to break the law, our policy is to pull them off the store.”

Schumer’s shout-down was probably one of the tougher barrages of questions an Apple executive has ever faced from a lawmaker. It’s too bad it had nothing to do with mobile privacy.