US senators ask FTC to investigate Apple and Google over mobile tracking

They mentioned how the information could be used against people seeking abortions.

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WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 8: Committee chairman Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) questions U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek Murthy during a Senate Finance Committee hearing about youth mental health on Capitol Hill on February 8, 2022 in Washington, DC. According to a recent report from the Surgeon Generals office, rates of psychological distress among young people, including symptoms of anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders, have increased since the pandemic began. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Drew Angerer via Getty Images

A group of Democratic senators is urging the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Apple and Google over their collection of mobile users' information. In a letter addressed to FTC Chair Lina Khan, the lawmakers — Senators Ron Wyden, Elizabeth Warren, Cory A. Booker and Sara Jacobs — accuse the tech giants of "engaging in unfair and deceptive practices by enabling the collection and sale of hundreds of millions of mobile phone users' personal data." They added that the companies "facilitated these harmful practices by building advertising-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 information, is collected and shared. They wrote the letter shortly before the Supreme Court officially overturned Roe v. Wade, making abortion immediately illegal in states with trigger laws. They explained that data brokers are already selling location information of people visiting abortion providers. The senators also stressed how that information can now be used by private citizens incentivized by "bounty hunter" laws targeting individuals seeking an abortion. 

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

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Google, they said, still enables that tracking identifier by default. The company previously introduced features to make it harder to track users across apps, though, and it recently vowed to refine Privacy Sandbox on Android, "with the goal 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 claims that advertising ID was created to facilitate data sale are simply false."

Despite the solutions the companies had introduced, the lawmakers said they'd already caused harm. They're now asking the FTC to look into the role Apple and Google played in "transforming online advertising into an intense system of surveillance that incentivizes and facilitates the unrestrained collection and constant sale of Americans’ personal data."

Wyden and 41 other Democratic lawmakers also urged Google last month to stop collecting and keeping location data that could be used against people who've had or are seeking abortions. More recently, another group of lawmakers led by Sen. Mark Warner and Rep. Elissa Slotkin asked the company to "crack down on manipulative search results" that lead people seeking abortions to anti-abortion clinics" instead.

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