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Apple, Google In Privacy Hot Water Over "Locationgate"

Apple and Google are helping intensify an already intense digital privacy debate with last week’s revelations that both companies’ mobile software track your movements in detail without your affirmative consent. This morning the Wall Street Journal reported that the iPhone stores user location data even when location-services are entirely turned off:

Apple Inc.’s iPhone is collecting and storing location information even when location services are turned off, according to a test conducted by The Wall Street Journal. The location data appear to be collected using cellphone towers and Wi-Fi access points near a user’s phone and don’t appear to be transmitted back to Apple.

According to data from Nielsen a majority of US mobile users are now concerned about privacy and location:

Investigations Have Begun

This weekend members of Congress called for formal investigations of Apple over the revelations. There are already similar investigations going on in Europe and South Korea. And it was previously reported that police in the US have used the iPhone’s secret “consolidated.db” file in criminal cases, leading to convictions. (Here’s how to encrypt location on the iPhone.)

So far Apple has declined to comment officially on what will undoubtedly be called “Locationgate” (see update below.) However Google has offered the following official statement (this verbatim statement from Google replaces the earlier USAToday paraphrase):

All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.

The issue is not so much the tracking of your phone’s movements and location history but what might happen to that data and who might be able to access it. (This is the same issue that surrounds search logs.) For example, in an unrelated case that shows some of the perils the new world of electronic data, tracking and surveillance, an innocent man was accused of being a child pornographer though his neighbor was the guilty one and was pirating the man’s unprotected wireless network.

The Benefits of All This Data

There’s another side to all this of course; and there are ways in which the volumes of location and other data coming off mobile devices can be beneficial to urban planners, public health officials and other researchers in myriad ways. As explained in another article in the Wall Street Journal:

The data can reveal subtle symptoms of mental illness, foretell movements in the Dow Jones Industrial Average, and chart the spread of political ideas as they move through a community much like a contagious virus, research shows. In Belgium, researchers say, cellphone data exposed a cultural split that is driving a historic political crisis there.

And back at MIT, scientists who tracked student cellphones during the latest presidential election were able to deduce that two people were talking about politics, even though the researchers didn’t know the content of the conversation. By analyzing changes in movement and communication patterns, researchers could also detect flu symptoms before the students themselves realized they were getting sick.

Users Will Get Control — in the End

There’s no way to go backward. We now live in a society where people are leaving an electronic record of their movements, attitudes, behavior, social associations and purchase histories. However, unknown to many people, much of this data (and related “tracking”) has existed offline for years.

The key is to give users control and make location and other data collection more transparent. Apple requires iPhone apps to ask for consent to share location. The company should have to do the same for its own location services and/or enable apps to access user location without location tracking being persistent.

Whatever legislation and rules finally emerge from Congress and/or the FTC on digital privacy mobile and location tracking will certainly be a part of that. We should be grateful that these revelations happened when they did, to help bring the debate over location tracking on mobile devices more fully into the larger online privacy debate.

Postscript: Google disputes my characterization that location tracking happens without consent (see statement above). It’s more accurate to say that location data is collected but “location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

Postscript II: In a terse response to an iPhone owner’s email Apple CEO Steve Jobs denied that Apple “tracks anyone.” Here’s the exchange reported by MacRumors:

Q: Steve

Could you please explain the necessity of the passive location-tracking tool embedded in my iPhone? It’s kind of unnerving knowing that my exact location is being recorded at all times. Maybe you could shed some light on this for me before I switch to a Droid. They don’t track me.

A: Oh yes they do. We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.

Sent from my iPhone

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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