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Big Bro? Tampa lawsuit spurs hearings, debate on cell phones tracking user locations

Published May 10, 2011

Wake up and good morning. While the latest Big Brother issue -- an individual's location tracked by his cell phone -- is spilling over into congressional hearings, the controversy's already hit the courts right here. In Tampa, two iPhone users filed a lawsuit seeking class-action status in federal court, says Bloomberg News. The two -- Vikram Ajjampur, an iPhone user in Florida, and William Devito, an iPad owner in New York -- asked a judge to bar Apple from collecting location data. They claim they wouldn't have bought their iPhone or iPad had they known that Apple was tracking their locations, and are asking for refunds.

Apple is at fault, the suit alleges, for letting the iPhone and iPad secretly record a user's location history.

It's early in this legal debate. But not so early that Apple CEO Steve Jobs already has fired off one of his characteristically terse emails in response to the furor around Apple keeping location data on iPhone users, reports Business Insider. Jobs supposedly told a MacRumors reader, "We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false."

That's not satisfying Congress. According to the Wall Street Journal, a House committee that oversees privacy issues broadened industry scrutiny by sending letters to six developers of mobile operating systems on Monday -- including Apple and Google -- seeking more information about whether they are tracking users' locations.

The Journal reports that privacy policies and tracking practices of mobile-phone makers and app developers have come under increased scrutiny as cell phones become more sophisticated and people put more of their personal data into their phones. Says the newspaper: "Researchers last week found that Apple's iPhones store unencrypted databases containing location information that sometimes stretch back several months. Documents and data analyzed by The Wall Street Journal also found that Google's Android smartphones, as well as iPhones, regularly transmit their locations back to the respective companies."

Apple and Google previously have said users can prevent the data collection by turning off location-based services, though doing so limits functions such as maps. The Wall Street Journal investigation found that "turning off location services doesn't disable the storage, at least on the iPhone 4 that it used to run tests."

The Tampa lawsuit says that because the location data is being gathered without consent, Apple is violating the privacy of users in violation of the law.

Chalk up another leap in technology capability without much thought given to personal privacy. Or is that a completely outdated concept these days? There's more detail and video discussion on this here at radar.o'

-- Robert Trigaux, Business Columnist, St. Petersburg Times