How Much Should You Freak Out About Apple and Google Tracking Your Location?

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via  <a href="http://radar.oreilly.com/2011/04/apple-location-tracking.html">O'Reilly Media</a>
Photo: Sample map from the iTracker app that shows you the data your iPhone has been collecting.

Earlier this week, O'Reilly Media blogged about its discovery that Apple was using a hidden software file to track your iPhone location and transfer that data to your computer (when the two devices synced). Privacy advocates/humans got nervous. They downloaded the iPhone Tracker app onto their computer and within seconds saw a map, perhaps missing some locations, but neatly laying out where they've been, perhaps over a few years. They quickly realized that if all it took was an app and the unencrypted, unprotected data became visible, what's to stop someone else from doing the same? They freaked the fuck out.

Technophiles like forensic researcher Alex Levinson quickly cut through the knee-jerk reaction, explaining that the "discovery" was neither new, nor secret, and that Apple wasn't actually receiving the data. But Levinson was wrong about one big thing. According to a Wall Street Journal report out today, it's not just data stored on your computer. IPhones actually regularly transmit location back to Apple — just like Android smartphones do with Google. Yes, people. It's true. Location-based services like apps that help you find where you're trying to go or what's nearby need to know your location. And, apparently, have been storing it. In places you hadn't realized. But as for how this makes you feel, we'll let you decide.

Why You Should Feel Free to Indulge Your Paranoia:
1. You downloaded that iTracker app and realized the scary-looking map doesn't even cover all the information actually stored in your phone, like time and "very specific place."

2. You read Henry Blodget's article, "IT'S OFFICIAL: Apple Has Brainwashed the Whole Country — How Else to Explain the Lack of Outrage Over Apple's Secret Location Tracking?" during which he repeats the phrase, "Your Apple iPhone has been secretly tracking and recording everywhere you go for the past several years" three times. (Never mind that Blodget didn't realize that Google was doing the same thing, or that iTunes terms and conditions covers the opt-in rules.)

3. You believe the fact that Google and Apple are back at headquarters gathering this information to build massive databases to pinpoint people's locations and unleash a Skynet-like Judgment Day and/or get in on the $2.9 billion market for location-based services.

Why We're Adopting a Wait-and-See Approach:
1. You realize that Apple actually disclosed this information to Congress two years ago and explained that the data is only tracked and transmitted if the user turns on the Location Services option. According to Apple's letter, the file is "randomly assigned an identification number every 24 hours, and sent off every 12 hours to Apple. The data gets stored in a secure database 'accessible only by Apple.'" As Apple explained, it ditched the outsourced location databases of WiFi and cell-tower hot spots and is doing this to build one of its own.

2. You read Google's similar statement:


“All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user,” Google said in a statement to Mobilized. “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.”

3. You think there are probably some trade-offs to be expected between instantaneous location-aware services and privacy.

4. You believed us when we said the new model for privacy correction is "build first, correct later." And if serious privacy standards are being violated, the companies will be taken to court, like Google was with Street View and Buzz, and forced to change their policies.

Why Apple Collects Location Data from Your iPhone [Techland/Time]
My iPhone Is Tracking Me? That’s Outrageous, But Also Kind of Cool [Mobilized]
Google: Of Course Our Location-based Services Require Your Location Info [Mobilized]
Apple, Google Collect User Data [WSJ]
Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves [O'Reilly Media]
iPhone tracking: The day after [O'Reilly Media]
3 Major Issues with the Latest iPhone Tracking “Discovery” [Alex Levinson]