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Lawmakers Ask Apple’s Steve Jobs for Answers on Privacy

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Two self-styled privacy hawks in Congress have turned their attention toward Apple, asking the company for answers about how it is collecting and using information about its users’ geographical location.

In a letter to Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) CEO Steve Jobs, Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) posed a string of questions about a recent addition to the company’s privacy policy that staked a broad claim to information associated with users’ location: “Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device,” the policy now reads.

That didn’t sit well with Markey and Barton, who sent the letter (available in PDF format here) to Jobs in response to a report in the L.A. Times highlighting Apple’s policy change.

“It is our understanding that Apple’s consumers cannot use newly purchased iPads, iPhones, Apple computers, or purchase products for existing Apple products from the iTunes music store unless they accept the revised terms and conditions and include agreeing to the collection and sharing of geographical location data,” the congressmen wrote.

“Given the limited ability of Apple users to opt out of the revised policy and still be able to take advantage of the features of their Apple products, we are concerned about the impact the collection of such data could have on the privacy of Apple’s customers.”

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the letter.

In its privacy policy, Apple suggests as an example that it might share users’ location data with third-party applications. Many of those apps, which have come increasingly to define the user’s experience on the iPhone and iPad, are now incorporating location awareness to enhance mapping, social or promotional features.

Apple insists in its privacy policy that the location information is collected anonymously and includes no markers that could personally identify users. But Apple’s blanket claim over non-personal data leaves a wide berth for the use of location-based information: “We may collect, use, transfer and disclose non-personal information for any purpose,” the privacy policy reads.

Markey and Barton co-chair the House Bipartisan Privacy Caucus, and most recently set their sights on Google’s inadvertent collection of Wi-Fi data through its Street View project. First, they called on Federal Trade Commission Chairman Jon Leibowitz to open an investigation. Then, a week later, they sent a letter of inquiry to Google CEO Eric Schmidt, asking for answers about the Wi-Fi snafu in much the same way as they are now soliciting comments from Apple’s Jobs.

In their letter, Markey and Barton asked about the extent of Apple’s collection of location-based data, how long the company has been gathering the information and what safeguards it has in place to ensure that the data remain anonymous.

They also asked for information about the unnamed “partners and licensees” with whom Apple said it shares location-based information, pointedly challenging the company to defend its position in the face of a provision of federal law — Section 222 of the Communications Act — that bars firms from sharing information about a consumer’s location with securing explicit prior consent.

“Does Apple believe that legal boilerplate in a general information policy, which the consumer must agree to in order to download applications or updates, is fully consistent with the intent of Section 222, and sufficient to inform the consumer that the consumer’s location may be disclosed to other parties?” they wrote, asking Apple to provide a copy of any legal analysis the company had conducted regarding the privacy policy.

They are requesting a response from Apple by July 12.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

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