Wi-Fi Privacy Focus of U.S. Senator’s Query to Apple, Google

Senator Richard Blumenthal asked Apple Inc., Google Inc. and Microsoft Corp. for information about the companies’ collection of data from private wireless networks to create maps of Wi-Fi service, saying the practice raises privacy concerns.

Blumenthal, a Connecticut Democrat who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, made the request in a letter to the companies that was released today by his office in Washington. The letter also was sent to BlackBerry maker Research in Motion Ltd., handset manufacturer Nokia Oyj and Skyhook Wireless Inc., a provider of wireless phone location services.

“Attempting to document the locations of personal wireless networks in individuals’ homes without their knowledge or consent raises issues regarding what constitutes a reasonable expectation of privacy for an ordinary citizen,” Blumenthal said in the letter.

Blumenthal’s letter coincides with broader inquiries by U.S. lawmakers into the privacy of customer location data gathered from smartphones and other mobile devices. Apple, Google and Facebook Inc. are due to face questions on mobile privacy tomorrow in a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing.

Apple and Google, the makers of software used in millions of smartphones, also may face tougher European Union restrictions on the way they handle user-location data after an opinion by European Union privacy officials published today.

Companies Respond

“We have received Senator Blumenthal’s letter and look forward to answering his questions,” Jay Nancarrow, a Google spokesman, said in an e-mail.

Microsoft spokeswoman Christina Pearson said the company has received the letter and “will be working toward a response.”

Apple had no immediate comment, spokeswoman Kristin Huguet said. Research in Motion and Nokia did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Skyhook makes software that uses the location of wireless routers and telecommunications towers to pinpoint the location of a mobile phone.

“We think it’s an important set of questions and we’ll be happy to talk about the data we collect and how,” Ted Morgan, Skyhook founder and chief executive officer, said in an interview at a conference today in Washington. “There are a lot of answers already on our website.”

Street View Inquiry

As Connecticut attorney general, Blumenthal led a 40-state inquiry into Google’s gathering of data as part of its Street View project to map neighborhoods worldwide.

Google had vehicles drive through streets to take pictures of buildings for its Street View product, which lets users click on maps to see photographs of roadsides. Names and signal strengths of nearby wireless routers also were collected for a database that would help locate phones based on their proximity to cell-phone towers and the wireless access points.

Google said it was unaware that the software gathering information on the routers also was collecting data that unsecured Wi-Fi networks were sending out. The company said that it stopped the practice and notified authorities as soon as it learned that the information was being collected.

In some instances, that data has been destroyed, while in others it’s been preserved at the behest of investigative authorities, Google has said.

‘Honestly Embarrassed’

“We have tried to be very clear it was not our policy to collect this information,” Alan Davidson, director of public policy for Google, said in response to questions from Blumenthal at a May 10 Senate hearing. “We never used that information. People at the company were quite surprised and honestly embarrassed to find out that we had been collecting it.”

The senator highlighted Street View in his letter, saying the “scandal may represent the most visible example in recent years of a large technology company unequivocally violating the privacy of third parties, but is surely not the first or last such example.”

Blumenthal’s letter asked the technology companies a series of questions, including whether they’ve “contemplated, implemented or purchased” information gathered from wireless data transmissions.

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