Location Privacy Bill Gets Another Push

Proposed Legislation Aimed at Stalkers, but Industry Worries It Could Stifle Legitimate Use

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A Senate subcommittee heard witnesses Wednesday on the latest version of the Location Privacy Protection Act, which aims to make it harder for stalkers to use mobile tracking technology to find their targets.

Because the bill aims to stop technologies that have assisted violent criminals, this particular legislation could have a better chance of passing than some of the more sprawling privacy bills to be introduced in recent years. But the proposed law could also curb a lot of emerging mobile location tracking activity that straddles the line between offering consumer conveniences and infringing on consumers' privacy.

At the hearing in the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), a sponsor of the bill, listed several examples of violence against people who were located using geo-location tracking technologies. But he also called location-based services terrific for consumers.

"I use them all the time when I drive across Minnesota," he said.

The bill, which is co-sponsored by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), would require companies to obtain permission from individuals before collecting location data from their phones, tablets or navigation devices in their vehicles. It would also require companies gathering location data from 1,000 or more devices to detail online which kinds of data they collect, how it's shared and how people can opt out from data collection or sharing of their own location information.

Although a similar proposal failed to become law last year, the new bill still may fare better than other attempts to check consumer tracking. For example, a broader bill proposed by Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W. Va.) and Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) would give consumers access to information held by data brokers serving the marketing industry and allow them to correct information or opt out from use of that data for marketing purposes. The Federal Trade Commission recently endorsed similar principles, but the proposed bill affects an enormous group of companies and requires defining "data broker" before anything else. That alone is daunting.

There are countless devices and mobile applications that gather people's physical locations. Some require consumers' approval. Others, such as a variety of systems used by retailers to track in-store footpaths, don't always get permission first. In February the Future of Privacy Forum -- a think tank that works with industry, academia, law and advocacy groups -- introduced SmartStorePrivacy.org, a site where consumers can opt out from having their mobile devices tracked by participating tech firms while visiting commercial locations.

Much of the location data used to connect consumers to locations is facilitated by the mobile advertising industry. Indeed, many apps with no location-related function -- such as gaming apps -- still require location data tracking because they generate revenue through geographically-targeted mobile advertising. That information can then be gathered and analyzed for purposes other than mere ad targeting.

"The mobile ad ecosystem is absolutely sharing" location data, Duncan McCall, CEO of mobile location firm PlaceIQ told Ad Age in December. The company helps clients learn more about the demographics of people visiting business locations, and about other places they've visited; PlaceIQ removes personally-identifiable information such as physical addresses from reports it gives to clients.

The majority of witnesses at the hearing Wednesday supported the proposed rule, but the ad industry remains wary. "New laws or rules could impede future developments or discourage companies from continuing to compete over privacy features," said Lou Mastria, managing director of the Digital Advertising Alliance.

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