A group of Democratic lawmakers want the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate Apple and Alphabet’s Google for allegedly engaging in unfair and deceptive practices by collecting mobile phone users’ personal data.
The legislators stated in a letter to the FTC yesterday (24 June) that Google and Apple “knowingly facilitated these harmful practices by building advertising-specific tracking IDs into their mobile operating systems’.
The letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan said the two companies failed to inform consumers of the privacy and security dangers involved in using Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android devices.
The letter also stated Apple and Google both designed their mobile operating systems “to include unique tracking identifiers which they have specifically marketed for advertising purposes”.
The Democrats said the identifiers led to an unregulated data market by creating a single piece of information that could be linked to a device. Data brokers and their customers could then use that information to find additional information about the mobile users.
“Google never sells user data, and Google Play strictly prohibits the sale of user data by developers,” a Google spokesperson stated to Mobile World Live. “Additionally, Google Play has policies in place that prohibit using this data for purposes other than advertising and user analytics. Any claims that advertising ID was created to facilitate data sales are simply false”.
The Google representative said the advertising ID was created to give users more control and provide developers with a more private way to effectively monetise their apps.
In April, Google launched the Google Play Data safety section to give users more transparency into the information collected by apps.
The letter stated the data that is bought or acquired from app developers and online advertisers could also include consumers’ web browsing activity and their movements.
“It is beyond time to bring an end to the privacy harms forced on consumers by these companies,” according to the letter signed by Senator Ron Wyden (D., Ore.); Senator Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.); Senator Cory Booker (D., N.J.); and Representative Sara Jacobs (D., Calif.).
Roe v. Wade
While the letter was issued before the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on 24 June, it stated women “seeking abortions and other reproductive healthcare will become particularly vulnerable to privacy harms, including through the collection and sharing of their location data.”
Last year, Apple announced privacy changes in iOS that required each app to ask the user for permission to access the device’s identifier while Google outlined plans to make developers disclose how user data is shared by apps.
The letter to the FTC acknowledged that Apple and Google allowed consumers to opt-out of tracking but noted both companies required users to take steps to turn them off.
Apple enabled tracking ID by default and requires consumers to dig through “confusing phone settings to turn it off,” the letter stated.
Google still enables the tracking identifier by default, and until recently “did not even provide consumers with an opt-out,” according to the FTC letter.
“By failing to warn consumers about the predictable harms that would result by using their phones with the default settings that these companies chose, Apple and Google enabled governments and private actors to exploit advertising tracking systems for their own surveillance and exposed hundreds of millions of Americans to serious privacy harms”.
The four lawmakers also said if Roe v. Wade was overturned, prosecutors in states where abortion was illegal could obtain warrants for location information about anyone who had visited an abortion provider.
The letter stated individuals could also be incentivised by state bounty laws to look for women who have obtained or are seeking an abortion by accessing location information through the data brokers.
“It is beyond time to bring an end to the privacy harms forced on consumers by these companies,” the lawmakers wrote in their conclusion.
Apple didn’t respond to an email asking for comment about the letter.