The request came, ironically enough, in the middle of a Senate hearing at which lawmakers grilled Apple and Google executives over their collection and use of location-based data from iPad, iPhone, and Android devices.
Jason Weinstein, deputy assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division of the DOJ, Tuesday testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee's Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law that it would be useful if companies that have access to smartphone location data could provide that information lawfully to criminal investigators.
The DOJ is particularly interested in the data as it pertains to investigations about cyber crimes that target mobile devices, child abductions, and others in which a mobile phone user's location is crucial, he said.
"Even though we encounter users who use their smartphones and devices as they would use a computer, many wireless providers do not maintain the records necessary to trace the IP address to a smartphone," Weinstein said. "Law enforcement must be able to get the data it needs to identify these crimes successfully and identify the perpetrators."
Weinstein's testimony came as a bit of a surprise during a hearing called by Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., because of concern over how data collected from mobile location-based services could be misused to invade smartphone user privacy.
Executives from Google and Apple assured lawmakers they're committed to maintaining the privacy of users of Android-based smartphones and iPhones and iPads, which use a variety of geo-location technology to locate where a person is using a device so a range of applications can provide them personalized services.
However, this ability gives companies under current federal regulations the ability to "disclose my location without my knowing it and without my consent," a scenario with which lawmakers are less than comfortable, Franken said. It's that same information, however, that Weinstein said the DOJ wants to use to catch criminals.
Location-based services have "tremendous value to consumers," said Alan Davidson, director of public policy at Google, who even cited a government application--a U.S. Post Office app that helps people find the locations of local post offices from their mobile devices--as a prime example.
Indeed, a host of federal agencies--including the White House itself--offer smartphone applications as part of the government's plan to use technology to better engage with the public, and some of them use location-based services.
Franken stressed that the feds are not trying to handcuff the companies from continuing to offer innovative mobile services and applications. "No one wants Apple or Google to stop producing their products--you guys are brilliant," he said.
Still, there is definitely a need to "find a balance between all of those wonderful benefits and the public's right to privacy," Franken said.
Davidson faced particular scrutiny by lawmakers for reports that Google collected user location data from unsecured Wi-Fi networks and then filed for patents for the technology used to do it.
He said the company collected the data inadvertently, did not intend to misuse it, and destroyed the data when it was asked to. Apple, too, has been reported to collect location-based data of its users.
However, if the DOJ has its way, these contentious practices, rather than being criticized, may some day be required by law.