WASHINGTON – Senators on a key panel Tuesday issued stern criticisms of tech companies for storing personal data about user locations via mobile phones, calling for beefed up privacy laws to keep up with cellular technology.
"I believe that consumers have a fundamental right to know what data is being collected about them," said Sen. Al Franken (D-MN), chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law, which held the hearing. "I also believe they have a right to decide whether they want to share that information and with whom they want to share it and when."
Franken voiced concerns about the "massive shift of our personal information into the hands of the private sector," decreeing the need to ensure that "privacy protections are keeping up with our technology."
"I don't think we're doing enough to protect" consumers from being tracked via "mobile devices, smartphones, tablets and cellphones," he said.
"I'm deeply concerned about the recent reports that the Apple iPhone, Google Android phone, other mobile applications, may be collecting, storing and tracking user location data without the user's consent," said Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT). "I'm also concerned about reports that the sensitive location information may be maintained in an unencrypted format, making the information vulnerable to cyber thieves and other criminals."
The two senators cited reports about cell phone companies increasingly tracking users via cell phones, as well as polls showing rising public concerns about their privacy. They feared that without stronger laws, millions of Americans may be at risk from potential electronic security breaches at the hands of cyber criminals, identity thieves and cyber stalkers.
Sen. Tom Coburn (OK), the top Republican on the committee, raised questions as to whether and how regulatory mechanisms could stave off the privacy breaches they all agreed were problematic.
The senators had some kind words for tech companies, too.
"No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products. You guys are brilliant," Franken said. "What today is about is trying to find a balance between all those wonderful benefits and the public's right to privacy."
Those called to testify were Jason Weinstein, assistant attorney general for the criminal division, and Jessica Rich deputy director at the Federal Trade Commission's consumer protection bureau.
Leahy summed up the tone of the hearing: "The digital age can do wonderful, wonderful things for all of us, but at the same time American consumers face threats to privacy like no time before, with the explosion of new technology," he said.
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