The Washington Post

Jobs explains mobile policies, says Apple will testify in hearing

After a week of silence, Apple founder Steve Jobs addressed growing concerns about Apple’s policies on gathering location data and said that the company does not track users through the iPhone.

“We haven’t been tracking anybody,” Jobs told The New York Times on Wednesday. “Never have. Never will.”

Jobs also said that Apple would accept a request by Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to testify before the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy.

“I think Apple will be testifying,” the company’s chief executive told All Things Digital. “They have asked us to come, and we will honor their request, of course.”

Franken, who sent Jobs a letter April 20 demanding more clarification on the issue, invited Apple and Google officials to attend the hearing.

Consumers and lawmakers called for Apple and other cellphone companies to explain their policies on location data after researchers published a report revealing that a file on the iPhone stores time-stamped location data. Google acknowledged last week that it collects anonymous tracking data for its location services, including from phones that run Android software, but that the data is recorded only when users give permission and cannot be traced back to an individual user.

On Wednesday, Apple finally broke its silence and issued a statement defending its policies and explaining how it stores the data.

In media interviews, Jobs said that Apple wasn’t ignoring those concerns but was taking its time to properly explain a complex issue.

“The first thing we always do when a problem is brought to us is we try to isolate it and find out if it is real,” he told the Times. “It took us about a week to do an investigation and write a response, which is fairly quick for something this technically complicated.”

Jobs reiterated Apple’s earlier statement that the file doesn’t store the location of an individual phone, but a chunk of a larger, anonymous, location-based dataset. He said that the information was stored for so long because of a bug in the software. On some handsets, this data stretched back for a year.

“We build a crowdsourced database of Wi-Fi and cell tower hot spots, but those can be over 100 miles away from where you are,” he told All Things Digital. “Those are not telling you anything abut your location. That’s what people saw on the phone and mistook it for location.”

Apple will issue a software update that will limit data storage to seven days, the company said. It will also delete the file if a user has opted out of location services.

“As new technology comes into the society, there is a period of adjustment and education,” Jobs said in the Q&A with All Things Digital. “We haven’t – as an industry – done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here.”

Apple’s media interviews answered some, but not all, of the concerns lawmakers have raised about the situation.

In a statement Wednesday, Franken said that he still “has questions about what exactly happened here and why Apple didn’t tell users about what it was doing.” He said the revelations have raised larger questions of how companies track the locations of mobile devices and whether federal law adequately protects consumers as technology evolves.

Also Wednesday, Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) sent letters to Jobs and Google chief executive Larry Page urging them to accept Franken’s request to testify.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) was also pleased that Apple addressed issues raised in his own letter to the company, but said he has some additional questions on how the company uses location data for advertising. In its statement this morning, Apple said that it does share location data with advertisers, without a user’s explicit permission.

Apple did not immediately respond to a request to confirm that the company will testify at the hearing.

Update: A Google spokesman confirmed that the company will also testify at the hearing.

Related stories:

Leahy urges Apple, Google to testify at hearing

Apple blames bug for location data file, plans policy changes

Tracking on the iPhone catches the Hill’s attention

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.


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