House Republicans question Apple on privacy

Politicians asked CEO Tim Cook, who has touted his company’s commitment to user privacy, about device data

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California, U.S., June 4, 2018.   REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Alphabet, Google’s parent company, and Apple are facing questions about their privacy practices from four top Republican members of Congress as tech companies fail to assuage politicians’ concerns.

In letters released Monday, the chairmen of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and three of its subcommittees asked Alphabet CEO Larry Page about reports that Alphabet had “permitted third parties to access the contents of users’ emails”.

The politicians asked Apple CEO Tim Cook, who has touted his company’s commitment to user privacy, about device data, particularly the access that third parties have to users’ information through the app store.

Both letters also asked whether the companies’ smartphones and mobile operating systems collected audio data even when users were not talking to the devices, and whether that data is shared with third parties. The letters also asked whether the phones collected location data even when location services and similar capabilities were disabled.

Users of iPhones and of Google’s Android mobile operating system “have a reasonable expectation of privacy when taking active steps to prevent being tracked by their device,” the letters say.

A Google representative said in a statement that the company looks “forward to answering the committee’s questions”.

“Protecting our users’ privacy and securing their information is of the utmost importance to Google,” the representative said.

Apple didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

The Wall Street Journal first reported on the letters and the access to Gmail users’ messages allegedly afforded to outside developers, which was said to come despite the company’s moves to limit access internally.

Big tech companies, particularly Facebook Inc, have been targets of increasing public scrutiny and calls, even from some Republican politicians, for potential regulation.

In June, for example, the top members of the Senate Intelligence Committee said they wanted top executives of Facebook, Google and Twitter Inc to appear before Congress to discuss the security of their platforms and the companies’ relationships with Chinese telecommunications firms.

The House committee also questioned Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg in April over Cambridge Analytica, a political data firm that secured access to the information of up to 87 million of the site’s users without their consent.

Apple, however, has largely stayed above the fray, and has even upped its privacy controls in a jab at Facebook.

Representative Greg Walden of Oregon, chairman of the House panel that oversees most technology policy issues, was the lead signer of the letters. Three fellow Republicans, Representatives Gregg Harper of Mississippi, Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Robert Latta of Ohio, also signed.