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FCC steps into privacy debate over location-based data, announcing forum

May 17, 2011 |  2:24 pm

Genachowski 2 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 use to help pinpoint the exact 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 FCC said Tuesday 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 on June 28. Among the topics: how location-based services work, their benefits and risks, and information parents should know about location tracking of children who use mobile devices.

The meeting will help agency 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 has 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."

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 collects 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.

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 deserve "special protection." But it is not recommending specific legislation yet, preferring to push companies to protect the information better.

RELATED:

Apple, Google try to ease lawmakers' privacy concerns

iPhone and iPad can track a user's location history

-- Jim Puzzanghera

Photo: FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski addressing a wireless industry conference last month. Credit: Reuters

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