House Hears Testimony on Location vs. Privacy Debate

Location is becoming the latest battleground over privacy. As a new generation of mobile devices broadcast a user’s location, there is no agreement among lawmakers, privacy advocates, the communications industry, and other interested parties as to what limits, if any, should be placed on location information.

On Wednesday, two House Subcommittees heard testimony on location-based services as part of a broader set of hearings on cyber security and privacy.

One of those testifying was Michael Altschul, vice president and general counsel for the wireless communications industry’s CTIA lobbying group. He said technology and other changes in the mobile industry underscore the need for clearer privacy guidelines.

“Since we developed our best practices guidelines in 2008, the world has changed in unpredictable ways,” Altschul told “Back then we assumed it would be up to the wireless carrier and application service provider to determine a user’s location.”

But the advent of the iPhone and other smartphones with built-in GPS, location-tracking services, and Google Maps make it easier for users to get where they want to go, but also reveal their whereabouts to others.

Can you find me now?

The CTIA is in the midst of updating its guidelines and said there will be an emphasis on balancing the needs of public safety with the need for consumer privacy.

“As technology continues to evolve, we would encourage Congress to clarify the terms under which location information may be released to law enforcement,” Altschul said in his testimony.

“When dealing with these issues, we also urge Congress to recognize the interstate nature of location-based services and the mobility of wireless users so they take a national approach so customers’ privacy?is maintained while fostering innovation, investment, and the introduction of new location-based services by wireless carriers, device manufacturers, operating systems developers, and applications creators.”

Altschul told that privacy protection is one of those rare issues that tends to garner bipartisan support. But the devil, as is often the case, is in the details. Location-based information is a new field and he said some in the Obama administration have argued it’s akin to trash on the street. On the latter point, Altschul noted the Supreme Court has ruled it is not illegal for someone to go through another person’s trash put out for collection.

He said CTIA doesn’t take a position on what restrictions should be put on law enforcement, rather its best practices are meant to inform the industry and educate consumers. But he did say new legislation is needed.

“Right now the carriers and customers are caught in the middle, or as I heard someone else put it, they’re ‘caught between the dog and the fire hydrant.’ It’s time for Congress to step in,” he said.

David Needle is the West Coast bureau chief at, the news service of, the network for technology professionals.

David Needle
David Needle
David Needle is a veteran technology reporter based in Silicon Valley. He covers mobile, big data, customer experience and social media, among other topics. He was formerly news editor at Infoworld, editor of Computer Currents and TabTimes and West Coast bureau chief for both InformationWeek and

Top Products

Related articles