FTC Testifies on Geolocation Privacy

June 4, 2014 – Federal Trades Commission Press Releases

The Federal Trade Commission testified before Congress on the Commission’s efforts to address the privacy concerns raised by the tracking of information about consumers’ location, as well as proposed legislation to protect the privacy of geolocation data.

Delivering testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee for Privacy, Technology and the Law, Jessica Rich, Director of the FTC Bureau of Consumer Protection, outlined the FTC’s ongoing efforts to protect the privacy of consumers’ geolocation information through enforcement, policymaking, and consumer and business education.

Precise geolocation data is sensitive personal information increasingly used in consumer products and services, the testimony states. These products and services make consumers’ lives easier and more efficient, but the use of geolocation information can raise concerns because it can reveal a consumer’s movements in real time and provide a detailed record of a consumer’s movements over time.

“Geolocation information can divulge intimately personal details about an individual. Did you visit an AIDS clinic last Tuesday? What place of worship do you attend? Were you at a psychiatrist’s office last week? Did you meet with a prospective business customer?” the testimony states.

Geolocation information may be sold to companies to help build profiles about consumers without their knowledge or consent, or it could be accessed by cybercriminals, hackers or through surreptious means such as “stalking apps.”

The FTC has used its enforcement authority under Section 5 of the FTC Act to take action against companies engaged in unfair or deceptive practices involving geolocation information. Last month, for example, the Commission entered into a settlement with the mobile messaging app Snapchat, resolving FTC allegations that Snapchat made multiple misrepresentations to consumers about the disappearing nature of messages sent through its service, as well its transmission of users’ geolocation information. The FTC has raised similar allegations involving undisclosed collection and transmission of location data as part of privacy complaints against a popular flashlight app, as well as a national rent-to-own retailer and one of its software vendors, the testimony states.

In addition to its enforcement activities involving geolocation information, the Commission has conducted studies, held workshops, and issued reports on mobile privacy disclosures, mobile apps directed to kids, and other topics that elucidate best practices for companies collecting, using, and sharing geolocation information, the testimony says.

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