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US Senators Ask FTC to Investigate Apple and Google Over Cellular Tracking

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A group of Democratic senators is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Apple and Google over their collection of information from mobile users. In a letter to FTC Chair Lina Khan, lawmakers — Senators Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Cory A. Booker and Sara Jacobs — accused the tech giants of “engaged in unfair and deceptive practices by collecting and selling hundreds of millions of the personal data from mobile phone users.” They added that the companies “facilitated these malicious practices by building ad-specific tracking IDs into their mobile operating systems.”

The senators specifically mentioned in their letter how individuals seeking abortions will become particularly vulnerable if their data, especially their location data, is collected and shared. They wrote the letter shortly before the Supreme Court officially quashed Roe v. Wade, immediately making abortion illegal in states with trigger laws. They explained that data brokers are already selling location information of people visiting abortion providers. The senators also highlighted how that information could now be used by individuals, boosted by “bounty hunters” laws targeting individuals seeking an abortion.

Android and Google are built with tracking IDs used for advertising purposes. While the identifiers should be anonymous, the senators said data brokers sell databases that link them to consumer names, email addresses and phone numbers. Apple rolled out an update to iOS last year to implement stricter app-tracking privacy measures, requiring apps to ask for permission before collecting the unique device code Identification for Advertisers from users.

Google, they said, still enables that tracking ID by default. The company previously introduced features to make it harder to track users in apps, and it recently vowed to refine Privacy Sandbox on Android, “with the aim of introducing new, more private advertising solutions.” The tech giant told Ars Technica: “Google never sells user data and Google Play strictly prohibits the sale of user data by developers… Any claim that an advertising ID is created to facilitate the sale of data is simply false.”

Despite the solutions the companies had introduced, lawmakers said they had already done damage. They are now asking the FTC to look at the role Apple and Google have played in “transforming online advertising into an intense surveillance system that encourages and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans’ personal data.”

Wyden and 41 other Democratic lawmakers last month urged Google to stop collecting and storing location data that could be used against people who have had or intend to have abortions. More recently, another group of lawmakers led by Senator Mark Warner and Representative Elissa Slotkin asked the company to instead address “manipulative search results” that direct people seeking abortions to anti-abortion clinics.

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