Mesa lawmaker’s bill would help protect from eavesdropping phone apps

PHOENIX — Rep. Kelly Townsend says she knows her phone is watching and listening to her, even when she’s not talking on it.

So now the Mesa Republican wants to force companies that develop software for phones and computers to disclose up front what they’re collecting and what they’re doing with it.

Her legislation, HB 2524, cleared its first hurdle Wednesday as the House Technology Committee voted 5-2 to make it the law in Arizona for consumers to be told when software has access to the camera or microphone. When someone is downloading the software, the user would be informed why data is being collected on them.

Townsend said companies like Facebook do provide that information — but only if you look deep enough into the disclosure that’s provided when the application is being downloaded. Even more difficult, she said, is finding ways to block the software from spying.

She told colleagues of having a conversation with her son about how his uncle uses a CPAP machine, short for “continuous positive airway pressure,” a device designed to help people with sleep apnea breathe more easily.

“The next day I started getting ads for CPAP machines,” Townsend said, ads that came in from Facebook.

Then there was a conversation in Spanish with someone about tamales at Christmas.

“For the next week I got all my ads in Spanish,” Townsend said. “I hadn’t Googled it.”

And then there were ads for a clothing product that Facebook could only have known about had the camera on her phone been activated.

All that, she said, is alarming.

“You don’t know who’s watching,” Townsend said, or where, suggesting that someone who takes a phone into a bathroom while showering now has to worry about what images are going out.

No one from Facebook or any of the other companies that have phone and computer applications testified about the bill.

There was no immediate response from Facebook to inquiries from Capitol Media Services, though the company has issued statements in the past that say it is not spying on users through cameras or microphones without their consent.

But Townsend said there are other indications that Facebook has an interest in watching what users are doing — and without asking them first. That includes a pending patent application by Facebook.

“The patent would allow them to use your camera to monitor your facial expression as you look at ads, as you’re scrolling through Facebook, to determine whether or not you are pleased with the product you’re looking at or you don’t like the product,” Townsend told other lawmakers. “It does show the intent of this particular app of what they’re wanting to do with your technology.”

She said that users have probably given permission for Facebook to do that when they loaded the software.

“But that permission has been hidden layers deep within that app,” Townsend said.

That, she said, is what the legislation is designed to do.

Rep. Kelli Butler, D-Paradise Valley, called the practices “very alarming.” And she said some sort of controls are needed.

But Butler said she’s not sure this is the solution.

Some of that, she said, is the fact that Arizona is seeking to impose requirements on software designed for national and international use that is downloaded in Arizona. And then there’s the question of how to even police and enforce this.

“I just don’t see how it would work,” Butler said in voting against the measure. “I don’t think it’s helping solve the problem.”

Rep. Frank Carroll, R-Sun City West, supported the bill, but questioned the practicality of it all.

“If this was in effect, as this statute tries to do, how would one be able to determine if there’s been an infraction of this with respect to their privacy?” he said.

“That’s another lawyer that we need to work on,” Townsend responded.

Townsend said there is a way to try to control what software programs can do by changing a phone’s settings.

But Townsend said it shouldn’t be necessary for users, some of whom may not be tech savvy, to have to figure that out. She said it should be transparent at the time an application is downloaded or first activated.

While no one spoke against the proposal, the Arizona Chamber of Commerce is on record in opposition.

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