US senator calls for FTC investigation of Apple, Google over privacy loopholes

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U.S. Senator Charles Schumer has issued a call for the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Apple and Google over potential privacy issues arising from loopholes in their respective mobile operating systems.

Sen. Schumer (D-NY) has raised concerns over iOS and Android because of a recent report from The New York Times outing a loophole where an app could upload users' photos when authorized to access location data, Reuters reported on Sunday. He also took issue with last month's discovery that some applications have been uploading user's address books to their own servers without permission.

"These uses go well beyond what a reasonable user understands himself to be consenting to when he allows an app to access data on the phone for purposes of the app's functionality," the senator said in a letter to the FTC.

"Smartphone makers should be required to put in place safety measures to ensure third party applications are not able to violate a user's personal privacy by stealing photographs or data that the user did not consciously decide to make public," he added.

Last month's report by the Times made use of a test app to demonstrate that an application could transmit geo-tagged photos to a remote server if allowed to access location information on the device.

Test app PhotoSpy's location authorization pop-up. Source| The New York Times

Social networking app "Path" came under fire last month when a developer discovered that the software was uploading contacts without asking for permission. The discovery brought to light the fact that a number of other popular apps also engaged in the practice. The "Path" team quickly responded with an apology and removed the offending feature.

For its part, Apple spoke up that unauthorized contact data transmission was in violation of its guidelines and pledged to require user approval in a future software release.

Apple faced lawmaker and regulator scrutiny last year over a similar issue with user location data. The company was part of an FTC forum last May as a result of a controversy over database files uncovered within iOS and Android that appeared to track user's locations. Apple clarified that the file was actually a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi networks used to improve location accuracy.

Location Data
Locations from iOS database plotted. | Source: O'Reilly Radar

The U.S. Senate also called Apple and Google to a series of its own hearings last year over the location issue. Apple insisted at the hearings that it has no plans to ever track users' locations.


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