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Federal Grand Jury Investigates Smartphone Privacy

A report says that the inquiry is looking into what kind of information smartphone apps collect

A federal grand jury may be looking into the privacy practices of smartphone applications such as Pandora Internet Radio for iPhone and Android devices. Pandora recently revealed in a filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission that it was asked to hand over documents to the investigative body. The company was told it was not a target of the investigation and said it believes other smartphone app publishers received similar subpoenas.

It's not clear what the grand jury is investigating, but The Wall Street Journal says that the criminal investigation is looking into what kind of information smartphone apps collect, whether they properly inform users about their data collection practices and why the companies need the device information in the first place.

Smartphone apps and concerns over privacy are a continuing theme in news reports. In February, Apple was hit with a lawsuit seeking class-action status. The suit accuses Apple of violating user privacy in the way it shares user information collected from iOS devices with advertisers.

As recently as Sunday, the podcast This Week in Tech debated privacy concerns about Color, the recently launched smartphone app, and how it may be using your smartphone's microphone to monitor ambient noise. The app does this as part of its effort to figure out where you are in relation to other Color users, according to TechCrunch. But this may also be something that many people who downloaded Color were unaware of, and Color's privacy policy, terms of service, and FAQ don't appear to specifically address this issue either.

Bigger Privacy Questions

Privacy issues surrounding cellphones are becoming increasingly important as more people use these devices to store their contacts, location history, electronic correspondence and calling habits. And while it's important to reign in companies that may be grabbing too much user information, a bigger threat to personal privacy in the digital age may be the government.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is working to make it harder for police officers to search your smartphone if you're arrested. The foundation recently filed a brief with the Oregon Supreme Court in a case where police arrested a man and then searched his cellphone without a warrant, according to the foundation. The police argue they didn't need a warrant, an argument the foundation rejects.

"If courts give police the freedom to rummage through the cellphones of anyone they arrest, then the constitutional protection of the warrant process is meaningless," Marcia Hofmann, a senior staff attorney at the foundation, said in a statement. Other states courts have also considered the ability for police to search cellphones without a warrant, but rulings for and against warrantless searches are split, according to the foundation.

In September, the American Civil Liberties Union filed suit against the Department of Homeland Security's policy allowing the agency to "search, copy and detain travelers' electronic devices at the border without reasonable suspicion." Several months later, independent journalist Brandon Jourdan complained of having his computer, phone and camera storage cards searched and copied by U.S. border agents after returning from an assignment in Haiti.

Police have also been given considerable leeway to find out your location based on data collected from your cellphone. In March 2010, Kevin Bankston, an attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, told NPR's On The Media that Sprint had set up a tool allowing the police to ping cellphones and find device locations based on GPS. The tool had been used more than eight million times during a one-year period, according to Bankston.

So while it's important to ask what companies are doing with your cellphone information, isn't it more important to ask what the government and law enforcement officials are doing?

Connect with Ian Paul ( @ianpaul ) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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