Apple Response to Congress on Privacy Still Sidesteps the Issue

Last Updated Jul 21, 2010 5:00 PM EDT

Apple (AAPL) is one of those high tech companies that have courted government attention -- especially when the company changed its privacy policy to collect location-based information. In fact, Representatives Ed Markey and Joe Barton sent Apple a letter with a series of questions. Now Apple's answers are public, and they're what you might expect -- carefully phrased evasions.
Apple emphasized that consumers have the ability to turn location services off and that they are required to give their approval before an app starts using location data. In the latest iPhone software, the phone also displays a little arrow icon whenever location data is being collected -- something that could be helpful given that users often don't keep track of privacy controls unless they are frequently reminded of them.
True enough, but if you carefully look at Apple's actual letter to Markey and Barton, you may start to notice some careful phrasing. For example, there's the following paragraph:
Second, Apple has always required express customer consent when any application or website requests location-based information for the first time. When an application or website requests the information, a dialogue box appears stating: "[Application/Website] would like to use your current location." The customer is asked: "Don't Allow" or "OK." If the customer clicks on "Don't Allow," no location-based information will be collected or transmitted. This dialogue box is mandatory -- neither Apple nor third-parties are permitted to override the notification.
However, Apple gets permission for its location-based services through a single permission when they go to the iTunes store. Those with existing accounts cannot use iTunes if they don't agree. New customers can activate and use their iOS devices, but will not be able to open an iTunes account. However, how do you get updates for a device? Through iTunes. How do you get apps -- a big reason someone would buy an iPhone or iPad -- even if they don't need location services? You can't.

Sure, there's flexibility in turning off location services ... for third party vendors. But so far as I can tell, Apple continues to hold itself apart, with a separate set of rules. That will not endear the company to Congress:

Markey and Barton thanked Apple for sharing basic information about their use of location data, but noted that industry practices in this area have been less than transparent."The new challenges and concerns that present themselves with the collection and use of location-based information are particularly disconcerting," Barton said in a statement. "While I applaud Apple for responding to our questions, I remain concerned about privacy policies that run on for pages and pages."
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.