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FCC steps into privacy debate over location data collected through mobile devices

The FCC will sponsor a June forum on the issue that could lead to rules governing the coveted information.

May 18, 2011|By Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Washington — The Federal Communications Commission is stepping into the simmering privacy debate over location data collected through cellphones and mobile devices, announcing a forum next month on the issue that could lead to rules governing the coveted information.

The FCC has authority over cellphone towers, which Apple Inc. and Google Inc. said they used to help pinpoint the locations of users. Such data are valuable to retailers and advertisers to pitch services and deals near a customer at any given moment.

In recent months, an internal FCC working group has been examining the privacy implications of the increasing use of location-based services, the agency said.

The agency said Tuesday that it had invited Apple, Google and other technology companies, along with wireless providers, consumer groups and academic experts, to participate in a public education forum in Washington June 28.

Among the topics: How location-based services work, their benefits and risks, and information that parents should know about tracking of children who use mobile devices.

The meeting will help the staff develop a report on location-based services that could recommend rules for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and other commissioners to consider.

The FCC said it also had begun accepting comments from the public on the issue.

"Over the last few years, [location-based services] have become an important part of the mobile market and a boon to the economy," the FCC said Tuesday. "Commercial location-based services include applications that help consumers find the lowest-priced product nearby or the nearest restaurant.

"But recent reports have raised concerns about the location-based information that is gathered when consumers use mobile devices," it noted.

Security researchers said last month that they discovered a file in the software on Apple iPhones and iPads that could store thousands of detailed records of a user's whereabouts. Google also said it collected such location data from mobile devices using its Android software.

Executives from the two companies testified at a Senate hearing last week, saying they collected the data anonymously and shared them with third-party applications only if the user agreed to it. Apple and Google executives are scheduled to testify at another hearing on the issue Thursday, along with an executive from Facebook Inc.

Lawmakers are considering whether there should be specific laws governing location data. The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission last year set up a joint task force to look into coordinated ways to protect online privacy. The FTC will co-host the June forum.

An FTC official said last week that location data deserved "special protection." But the FTC is not recommending specific legislation yet, preferring to push companies to protect the information better.

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