There’s a Law for That: Lawmakers Target Smartphones with Proposed Legislation

As smartphones become more prevalent in our everyday lives, lawmakers are becoming increasingly concerned that their use may be putting consumers at risk and have begun crafting legislation to regulate the use of the devices.

The rise of cell phones into our daily lives has been rather remarkable when you stop and think about it. Five years ago, I wouldn’t have imagined I would have much of a need for a cell phone, let alone a smartphone with email and web browsing. Steve Jobs and Apple proved me wrong though; today, I cannot imagine life without my iPhone.

The smartphone has become a major part of our lives in a relatively short amount of time. Not even a decade ago you wouldn’t have seen many, if any, of these devices.

As smartphones increasingly become a routine part of our daily lives, they become better known by everybody, and that includes members of Congress, for better or worse. Smartphones are known for their location tracking and data storage abilities which are remarkably useful features, but lawmakers are worried that this information might be getting distributed without a user’s knowledge or intent.

The Senate has been working on legislation in an effort to safeguard users’ privacy and personal information. The Location Privacy Protection Act of 2011, introduced by Al Franken (D-MN) and Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), aims to “close current loopholes in federal law” and proposes that companies should be required to obtain “express consent” from customers before collecting and/or sharing a user’s location data with third parties.

“After listening to expert testimony at the hearing I chaired last month on mobile technology and privacy and hearing from anti-domestic violence groups in Minnesota who said this kind of technology can be exploited by abusers, I concluded that our laws do too little to protect information on our mobile devices,” said Franken. “Geolocation technology gives us incredible benefits, but the same information that allows emergency responders to locate us when we’re in trouble is not necessarily information all of us want to share with the rest of the world. This legislation would give people the right to know what geolocation data is being collected about them and ensure they give their consent before it’s shared with others.”

A second bill in the Senate, known as the Data Security and Breach Notification Act, has been re-introduced by Mark Pryor (D-AR) and John D. Rockefeller (D-WV). It would require businesses and non-profits to put strong security features in place to safeguard sensitive data when storing consumers’ personal information. It would also alert consumers when these data have been breached and provide affected individuals with tools they need to protect their credit and finances. The bill had previously been introduced in 2010 but never became law.

“If companies are going to collect and store consumers’ personal information, safeguarding that information should be priority number one.  Unfortunately, we’re seeing some very popular companies outsmarted by hackers.  In fact, since we first introduced this legislation, we’ve seen major data breaches affect customers at Target, Best Buy, Walgreens and Sony,” said Pryor.  “We need to pass strong security and notification standards before this problem spins further out of control.”

Among other things, the proposed bill would:

  • Require the data security regulations to include methods for disposing of both electronic and non-electronic data
  • Require information brokers to submit their security policies to the FTC in conjunction with a notification of a security breach notification or on FTC request
  • Authorize the FTC to conduct information security practices of audits of brokers or require brokers to conduct independent audits

Not to be outdone by the Senate, the House has introduced its own geolocation security bill as well. Dubbed the Geolocation Privacy and Surveillance (GPS) Act, it was introduced by Jason Chaffetz (R-UT). The legislation creates a legal framework that is designed to give government agencies, commercial entities, and private citizens clear guidelines for when and how geolocation information can be accessed and used. (See the frequently asked questions document about the act)

“I think it’s great that GPS and tracking technology exists,” said Chaffetz.  “What isn’t great is the idea that this technology can be used to track somebody without their knowledge.  It is the job of Congress to protect and defend the United States Constitution and the personal liberties provided to American citizens under the Fourth Amendment.  Quite frankly, the government and law enforcement should not be able to track somebody indefinitely without their knowledge or consent, or without obtaining a warrant from a judge.”

Representatives of Apple and Google have both stressed their commitment to privacy at the Congressional hearings and said users can opt out of location-sharing on the iPhone and Google Android devices at their discretion.

You can decide for yourself whether or not one or more of these acts would make you feel safer when using your smartphone. Personally, I find my iPhone very useful and like it the way it is; I worry that as more regulations are levied upon its usage that it has the potential to morph into something less useful. If accepting a degree of personal risk (with my consent of course) has to come with using the device to keep it useful to me, so be it.

About the Author

Ian Smith is one of the co-founders of He has over 20 years of combined experience in media and government services, having worked at two government contracting firms and an online news and web development company prior to his current role at FedSmith.