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Executives from the biggest brands in mobile computing were summoned to Capitol Hill today. Lawmakers peppered Google and Apple executives with questions about how they track their customers and store data about their whereabouts with or without permission. The executives argued that their location technology makes their services popular. But members of Congress reacted with skepticism, as NPR's Audie Cornish reports.
AUDIE CORNISH: Laura Pollack(ph) is a homemaker visiting Washington from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and she's only too happy to show off her smartphone...
Ms. LAURA POLLACK: OK. There you go. See that blue thing? It's showing us exactly where we are.
CORNISH: ...which can pinpoint her every move.
Ms. POLLACK: Shows us in the Capitol.
CORNISH: It shows you right in the building.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Ms. POLLACK: Yup.
CORNISH: At what point is too close?
Ms. POLLACK: That's a little too close, yeah. Yeah. But I wonder where the information is going. I don't - I really don't know how secure it is.
CORNISH: And that's a problem for researchers and regulators who worry that customers don't understand how the information can be exploited. It could be accessed by anyone from computer hackers to stalkers to third parties like insurance companies looking to spy on their customers' bad habits.
Jessica Rich with the Consumer Protection Office in the Federal Trade Commission was among those who testified before a Senate Judiciary subcommittee at a hearing on privacy.
Ms. JESSICA RICH (Deputy Director, Bureau of Consumer Protection): If it's collected over time, you can also know what church somebody has gone to, what political meeting they've gone to, when and where they walk to and from school. So that is sensitive data that requires special protection.
CORNISH: Apple says they've fixed a bug that kept on tracking even after the customer switched off the location services. And in the future, it will keep less of the data, and what it does, it will keep encrypted. Beyond that, the company's VP for software technology, Bud Tribble, tried to dispel fears that the company tracked identifying information.
Mr. BUD TRIBBLE (Vice President of Software Technology, Apple): I want to reassure you that Apple was never tracking an individual's actual location from the information residing in that cache. Furthermore, the location data that were seen on the iPhone was not the past or present location of the iPhone but rather the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location.
CORNISH: Apple wasn't the only one facing scrutiny. Google executive Alan Davidson also sought to reassure lawmakers like Senate Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, who had concerns about third party apps gathering or selling information from the devices. Davidson tried to make an analogy, but Whitehouse wasn't buying it.
Mr. ALAN DAVIDSON (Director of Public Policy, Google): We don't go after trucking companies because they happen to carry faulty goods. We go after the manufacturers of those goods. And I would just say we're trying to strike the right balance.
Senator SHELDON WHITEHOUSE (Democrat, Rhode Island): You do go after the trucking company if the company knew what it was carrying.
Mr. DAVIDSON: And I think this is...
Sen. WHITEHOUSE: Google is in a better position to know what is being carried as a professional company that specializes and has vast resources than a 17-year-old who's been told by his friend that this is a cool app to load.
CORNISH: Caught in the crossfire are representatives from app makers, small software development companies who worry that more regulation will hobble their efforts to get their products out there. There'll be plenty for them to watch on the Hill in coming weeks as lawmakers in the House and Senate are writing new legislative language to add privacy protections on mobile devices.
Audie Cornish, NPR News, the Capitol.