Global Privacy Cop Germany Will Investigate Apple's User Location Data

Privacy Cop Germany Investigates Apple
Privacy Cop Germany Investigates Apple

In its latest move to safeguard computer users' rights and burnish its reputation as a global privacy cop, Germany is seeking to dig deeper into Apple's (AAPL) collection of its customers' location-based data.

Germany has been particularly busy of late amid the high-profile privacy debacles and debates surrounding tech titans from Google to Facebook. That should come as no surprise, given the country is considered the birthplace of data privacy: Its Hesse Data Protection Act of 1970 marked the first data protection legislation to be passed in the world.

"It was the first law in data protection and traditionally a lot of regulation over privacy comes out of Germany. It's one of the most influential [countries] in Europe," says Christopher Kuner, a partner at Hunton & Williams who heads up the law firm's international privacy and information management practice. He noted the Hesse Act laid out the general framework for privacy laws of today, given people the right to access their data and have control over it.

Last week, computer maker Apple updated its privacy policy, notifying customers that it would collect, use and sell real-time geographic location information gathered when they're using Apple devices such as iPads and iPhones. But as noted in a Reuters report, Germany's justice minister on Saturday was quoted in the widely read magazine Der Spiegel calling on Apple to "open its databases to German data protection authorities" to clarify the data it is collecting and how it will be used.

Taking a Pro-Active, Pro-Consumer Approach

Don't forget, it was German authorities who blew away Google's (GOOG) claims that it's Street View cars were only gathering WiFi location-based data and no personal information. Last month, Google ate crow regarding its earlier statements about the Street View cars, acknowledging that it had discovered the snafu after Germany's data protection authorities asked to audit the WiFi data.

Meanwhile amid concerns that social networking giant Facebook wasn't doing enough to safeguard its users' data, German Consumer Protection Minister Ilse Aigner earlier this month announced she would be deleting her Facebook account. She further noted that she believed her country's data protection agency would likely hit Facebook with fines over its privacy settings, despite changes it made to appease angry users. Those compromise moves have been largely panned worldwide.

Germany, like each of the countries that comprise Europe, has its own enforcement agencies to levy fines and take action in privacy matters, and the cases are usually handled by a data protection or consumer protection authority. Usually, those agencies are the ones with teeth, while ministry officials can initiate legislative or policy changes, Kuner noted.

For companies doing business in Germany, the privacy bar is actually rising. As Hunton & Williams notes in a blog post, last year Germany's parliament, the Bundestag, increased regulations on the way new data and previously collected data can processed, and tightened restrictions on sharing information with third-party marketing partners.

With this move against Apple, the Germans are sending a clear signal that they aren't going to relax their vigilance. Internet companies with a global footprint would be wise to brush up on their German.