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Editorial: You should know when apps are tracking you

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Remember telemarketing?

A few years ago, the practice was impossible to forget. That’s because you’d be reminded of it every evening, as one company after another called you at home and tried to make a sale.

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The companies were free to do so. But because their freedom proved hugely intrusive and a major annoyance to millions, the National Do Not Call Registry was passed in 2003 and upheld by the courts in 2004.

If a phone user didn’t want the interruptions, he or she didn’t have to endure them, the registry declared. And it worked: Coupled with state reforms, the registry slashed the number of sales calls to most households. That made it one of the most popular and effective laws of the decade.

Today, companies have found another way to exploit people’s reliance on their phones – their smartphones, in this case. Apps bundled with the phone or available for purchase can track the phone’s location, and companies then can sell that data to advertisers.

The question is, should those companies be able to do this without the smartphone owner’s knowledge?

Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., says no, and his Location Privacy Protection Bill requires the companies to get that consent.

Franken has a point, and the bill he’s proposing deserves to pass.

“Tens of millions of Americans have smartphones now,” Franken said in a press release.

“And the companies that make the software on your phone, including apps, can track your location at any time.

The bill by Franken and his cosponsors actually is two bills, as others have noted. The first part would ban “stalking apps” – essentially, apps that a disgruntled husband can install in his wife’s phone to track her whereabouts.

The ban has the strong support of domestic violence groups and would pass easily if it stood alone.

The challenge comes with the second part of the bill, which would “require that companies get individuals’ permission before collecting location data off of their smartphones, tablets, or in-car navigation devices and before sharing it with others,” as the press release notes.

A 2012 version of that proposal drew the wrath of business interests, which see enormous potential in “geolocation marketing.” As a result, while the bill passed the Senate Judiciary Committee on a bipartisan vote, it never reached the Senate floor.

The prospects look better this time around. That’s because more people are concerned with cyberprivacy than ever before, and they rightly see the demand for companies to get individuals’ consent as a reasonable and realistic requirement.

Franken, the chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, is holding a hearing on the Location Privacy Protection Bill today. Here’s hoping the evidence persuades Franken’s Senate colleagues, and that they approve this digital retaining wall to halt the erosion of online privacy.

FORUM NEWS SERVICE

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