Google and Apple Questioned By The House About Privacy Issues

In response to last week's reports that Google was giving third party apps access to people's Gmail accounts, despite promising not to scan those same accounts themselves anymore, the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent letters to the CEOs of Alphabet and Apple. The letters include questions about data collection - including emails, location data, and user voices - on Apple and Alphabet devices. The letters also cite news from November of last year that Google tracked the location of Android users, even when location tracking was turned off.

While the latest news was about Google (which is owned by Alphabet), both major tech companies received similar letters with similar questions - and both companies were reminded of previous commitments to safeguarding user privacy. For example, both companies were asked about cellphones "listening in" on people's conversations.

"Recent reports have also suggested that smartphone devices can, and in some instances, do, collect 'non-triggered' audio data from users' conversations near a smartphone in order to hear a 'trigger' phrase, such as 'okay Google' or 'hey Siri,' the letters read. "It has also been suggested that third party applications have access to and use this 'non-triggered' data without disclosure to users."

The letter to Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet, all but called him and his company liars. The letter reads,

"In June 2017, Google announced changes to Gmail that would halt scanning the contents of a user's email to personalize advertisements to 'keep privacy and security paramount. Last week, reports surfaced that in spite of this policy change, Google still permitted third parties to access the contents of users' emails, including message text, email signatures, and receipt data, to personalize content. In the context of free services offered by third parties, these practices raise questions about how representations made by a platform are carried out in practice."

And the letter to Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, cites concerns over cellphone towers collecting data. It states,

"Consumers have a reasonable expectation of privacy when taking active steps to prevent being tracked by their device. Considering that many consumers likely believe that a phone that lacks a SIM card, or one for which they have affirmatively disabled location services, Wifi, or Bluetooth - such as through turning on 'Airplane Mode' - is not actively tracking them, this alleged behavior is troubling."

In addition to the explanations for why they're receiving letters from the US House of Representatives, each letter contains a fairly comprehensive list of questions regarding privacy. Some of the questions are very direct and specific, much more than one might expect from a government body. After all, it's no secret that the federal government is often a few steps behind the tech world. It could even be argued that's how we got to the point of wondering about cellphones listening in and tracking and collecting data without explicit permission in the first place.

Apple and Alphabet have until July 23 to answer the Committee's questions. And if their answers are released to the public, maybe the customers who actually use these devices will get some answers, too.

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