Google, Apple Face Scrutiny from Republicans Over Data Privacy

Lawmakers press Apple and Google on how they track and listen to smartphone users

Top Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent a letter to the two tech giants asking Alphabet Chief Executive Officer Larry Page about Google permitting "third parties to access the contents of users' emails" and Apple about access that third parties may have through its App Store.

Alphabet said Monday that it would answer the committee's questions.

Alphabet and Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The letters cited reports that smartphones 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.'" They said there have been suggestions that third party applications have access to and use this "non-triggered" data without disclosure to users.

They also wanted to know a lot more, such as about data collection practices and the like.

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"Protecting our users' privacy and securing their information is of the utmost importance to Google". The hearing followed news that Cambridge Analytica, a data firm with ties to President Donald Trump's campaign, accessed information from as many as 87 million Facebook users without their knowledge. "Do Google's Android devices collect audio recordings of users without consent?"

"Considering that many consumers likely believe that a phone that lacks a SIM card, or one for which they have affirmatively disabled location services, Wi-Fi, or Bluetooth - such as through turning on "Airplane Mode" - is not actively tracking them, this alleged behavior is troubling", letters read. Both companies were asked to clarify their policies on this issue.

The thrust of the letter addressed to Tim Cook focuses on the company's assertion that it is committed to user privacy. For people who use those features, Apple has said it uses that data for a variety of purposes, including "provide you with geographically relevant ads on Apple News and in the App Store", according to its privacy policy. In a blog post, Google didn't dispute the practice but said that it vets the developers and allows users to control the access developers have.

"We write today to learn more about the capabilities of Apple's iPhone devices, in particular the collection and use of consumer data and microphone functionality of iPhones", the letter to Cook reads (and you can read the full version here).

Lawmakers asked for answers by July 23.

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