Lawmakers Question Apple and Google on Personal Data Collection Policies

The U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee this morning sent letters to Apple and Google parent company Alphabet to ask 16 multi-part questions about how the companies handle customer data, according to a press release.

The letter to Apple [PDF] cites recent media reports as the reason for the inquiry, referencing November news suggesting Android collects extensive user location data even when location services are disabled along with reports that smartphones collect and store "non-triggered" audio data from user conversations near a smartphone to hear a trigger phrase such as "Ok Google" or "Hey Siri."


While both of these reports were focused on Android, the House wants to know if Apple has similar practices, collecting location data when location services, WiFi, and Bluetooth are disabled or gathering "non-triggered" voice data from customers and sharing it with third-party sources.

A summary of some of the questions are below, with the complete list available in a PDF of the letter shared by the committee.

  • When an iPhone lacks a SIM card (or if WiFi, Bluetooth, or location services are disabled), is that phone programmed to collect and locally store information through a different data-collection capability, if available, regarding: nearby cellular towers, nearby WiFi hotspots, or nearby Bluetooth beacons? If yes, are iPhones without SIM cards (or with WiFi/Bluetooth/location services disabled) programmed to send this locally stored information to Apple?
  • If a consumer using an iPhone has disabled location services for multiple apps, but then reenables location services for one app, are iPhones programmed to reenable location services for all apps on that phone?
  • Do Apple's iPhone devices have the capability to listen to consumers without a clear, unambiguous audio trigger? If yes, how is this data used by Apple? What access to this data does Apple give to third parties?
  • Do Apple's iPhone devices collect audio recordings of users without consent?
  • Could Apple control or limit the data collected by third-party apps available on the App Store? Please provide a list of all data elements that can be collected by a third-party app downloaded on an iPhone device about a user.
  • Apple recently announced a partnership with RapidSOS for enhanced location services for 911 calls. What role will RapidSOS serve in the sharing and retention of this information?
  • What limits does Apple place on third-party developers' ability to collect information from users' or from users' devices? Please describe in detail changes made in June 2017 from prior policies.

That last question references App Store Guidelines that Apple updated in June to restrict apps from from collecting user data to build advertising profiles or contact databases. The new rules also prohibit apps from harvesting data from an iPhone user's contacts to create contact databases.

The letter goes on to request Apple's policies for data collection via the microphone, Bluetooth, WiFi, and cellular networking capabilities, along with Apple's policies pertaining to third-party access and use of data collected by the microphone. It also asks whether Apple has suspended or banned companies for violating its App Store rules, requesting specific examples and whether users had been notified their data was misused when the developer was banned.

The House Energy and Commerce Committee asks Apple to make arrangements to provide a briefing on the topics listed in the letter, but it does not provide a timeline for when Apple needs to respond. Apple generally responds to these requests in a prompt manner, however.

Apple maintains stricter and more transparent privacy policies than companies like Google and Facebook, with a dedicated privacy website that explains its approach to privacy, outlines tools available to customers to protect their privacy, and details government data requests.

Privacy is at the forefront of many features Apple implements, and the company is careful to always outline the privacy protections that have been added when introducing new functionality. When introducing new Photos features in iOS 12 that allow for improved search and sharing suggestions, for example, Apple was quick to point out that these features are all on-device.

Apple executives have said several times that Apple customers are not the company's product, and Apple CEO Tim Cook has maintained that privacy is a fundamental human right. From a recent interview:

To me, and we feel this very deeply, we think privacy is a fundamental human right. So that is the angle that we look at it. Privacy from an American point of view is one of these key civil liberties that define what it is to be American.

Cook has also said that people are not fully aware of how their data is being used and who has access to it, a problem that "needs to be addressed."

"The ability of anyone to know what you've been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike and every intimate detail of your life - from my own point of view it shouldn't exist."

Apple is continually introducing new privacy tools and protections for customers. Both macOS Mojave and iOS 12 include security and privacy improvements designed to better protect users, with additional tracking protection in Safari on both operating systems and extended privacy protections in Mojave.

Note: Due to the political nature of the discussion regarding this topic, the discussion thread is located in our Politics, Religion, Social Issues forum. All forum members and site visitors are welcome to read and follow the thread, but posting is limited to forum members with at least 100 posts.

Tag: privacy

Top Rated Comments

(View all)
Avatar
27 months ago
Google should be worried, not Apple.
Score: 17 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
27 months ago
Since android is basically another data mining extension of Alphabet/Google, they're gunna have some explaining to do.
Score: 14 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
27 months ago
"Do Apple's iPhone devices have the capability to listen to consumers without a clear, unambiguous audio trigger?"

How stupid are these people? Do they seriously expect a phone to hear a "clear, unambiguous audio trigger" without listening for one?
Score: 13 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
27 months ago
That's ok. I question lawmakers personal data collection policies.
Score: 11 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
27 months ago

I'd bet a years wages that all that rubbish about keeping your data private is a facade. Guess what, they'll buy what they can't get from the iPhone, from data miners/advertisers anyway.

Given a choice between a company that we know does all these things for advertising (google), a company that at least says it doesn't (apple), and having no real way of knowing which is being honest or not, I know which company I'd rather take the gamble on given there are only 2 smartphones OS to choose.
Score: 9 Votes (Like | Disagree)
Avatar
27 months ago
I don't expect Apple is sweating this conversation at all. I would think they welcome it to further differentiate their focus on privacy from the competition.
Score: 8 Votes (Like | Disagree)

Top Stories

Apple Takes Legal Action Against Small Company With Pear Logo

Saturday August 8, 2020 11:09 am PDT by
Apple is taking legal action against the developers of the app "Prepear" due to its logo, according to iPhone in Canada. Prepear is an app that helps users discover recipes, plan meals, make lists, and arrange grocery deliveries. The app is a spinoff of "Super Healthy Kids," and the founders claim that they are facing litigation from Apple. Apple reportedly takes issue with Prepear's logo, ...

Kuo: Global iPhone Shipments Could Decline Up to 30% If Apple Forced to Remove WeChat From App Store [Updated x2]

Sunday August 9, 2020 10:17 pm PDT by
In a worst-case scenario, Apple's annual global iPhone shipments could decline by 25–30% if it is forced to remove WeChat from its App Stores around the world, according to a new research note from analyst Ming-Chi Kuo viewed by MacRumors. The removal could occur due to a recent executive order aiming to ban U.S. transactions with WeChat and its parent company Tencent. Kuo lays out...

iPhone Maker Foxconn Says China's 'Days as the World's Factory Are Done'

Wednesday August 12, 2020 7:55 am PDT by
China will no longer be the world's manufacturing epicenter going forward, according to Apple's largest supply chain partner Foxconn, which has been gradually expanding its operations in other countries amid the U.S.-China trade war. "No matter if it's India, Southeast Asia or the Americas, there will be a manufacturing ecosystem in each," said Foxconn chairman Young Liu, according to Bloombe...

Google Maps Debuts New Apple Watch App and CarPlay Features

Monday August 10, 2020 9:16 am PDT by
Google today announced the launch of several features for Google Maps on Apple products, including new CarPlay functionality and a new Google Maps app that works on Apple Watch. The new Google Maps app for Apple Watch works similarly to the iOS app, allowing Apple Watch owners to get directions for a car, bike, public transit, or on foot. The app supports estimated arrival times and...

Apple May Release 4G-Only iPhone 12 in Early 2021

Tuesday August 11, 2020 5:28 am PDT by
In a research note shared by Business Insider, Wedbush Securities analysts said that Apple may release a cheaper iPhone 12 in early 2021 with no 5G connectivity. Wedbush initially believed Apple would launch a mix of 4G and 5G iPhone 12 models this fall. Following re-examination of Asian supply chains, analysts Daniel Ives, Strecker Backe, and Ahmad Khalil revised the predictions,...

iPad Pro Keyboard Comparison: Logitech's $160 Folio Touch vs. Apple's $300 Magic Keyboard

Tuesday August 11, 2020 2:11 pm PDT by
Logitech recently debuted the Folio Touch, a keyboard and trackpad case designed for the 11-inch iPad Pro that serves as an alternative to the Magic Keyboard. In our latest YouTube video, we compare the $160 Folio Touch to Apple's $300 Magic Keyboard to see which is better. Subscribe to the MacRumors YouTube channel for more videos. Logitech is selling the Folio Touch for $160, while Apple's...

Foxconn Reportedly Begins Seasonal Hiring Spree for iPhone 12 Production

Monday August 10, 2020 7:03 am PDT by
Apple's largest manufacturing partner Foxconn has begun its seasonal hiring spree to assist with iPhone 12 production, offering employees who recruit qualified applicants up to a 9,000 yuan bonus, according to Chinese media reports. As usual, Foxconn needs as many hands on deck as possible at its factory in Zhengzhou, China to assist with mass production of the upcoming iPhones. Apple is...

Apple Seeds First Public Beta of watchOS 7 to Public Beta Testers

Monday August 10, 2020 10:33 am PDT by
Apple today seeded the first public beta of an upcoming watchOS 7 update to public beta testers, one week after seeding the fourth beta to developers and a month and a half after the Worldwide Developers Conference. The update can be downloaded after installing the proper profile from Apple's Public Beta website. watchOS 7 should not be installed on a primary device as it is still an early...

Apple Watch Likely to Adopt MicroLED Display Technology in 3-4 Years

Monday August 10, 2020 2:55 am PDT by
This year's Apple Watch Series 6 is expected to feature an OLED screen like previous models, but a future model is likely to be the first Apple product to adopt MicroLED display technology, albeit not for another three to four years. That's the main takeaway reading between the lines of comments made by the chairman of Epistar, Taiwan's top LED producer, which is reportedly working on a...

Parallels Desktop 16 Brings macOS Big Sur Support, Multi-Touch Gestures, 20% Faster DirectX, and More

Tuesday August 11, 2020 2:17 am PDT by
Parallels Desktop 16 released today, bringing some notable new features and performance enhancements to the virtualization software, including full support for macOS Big Sur. When Apple introduced macOS Big Sur, it ended support for the third-party kernel extensions that previous versions of Parallels were built on. That forced the developers to re-engineer the virtualization software from the ...