April 28, 2011
This privacy violation, for those who didn’t catch the story, involves Apple’s iPhones and 3G iPads tracking and recording location data and storing it on the device indefinitely.
Without the user’s knowledge or consent, the device records the device’s location along with a time stamp. The file containing this information is also backed up into iTunes during syncs with the program.
Why is this significant?
Because anyone with access to your computer can essentially find out where you were at what time and on what day. (If you’re curious, there’s a program that allows you to view the data)
Apple claims that it isn’t tracking individual users and that the data is anonymous and used only to track the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers.
Either way, the result is the same: users’ movements are being tracked without the users’ knowledge or consent, and there’s currently no way to turn it off.
Aside from the privacy concerns around Apple or any other company using this data, the complaint mentions concerns about employers and spouses accessing this information, which, given the data’s accessibility, is very possible.
This last development is only the latest in a string of privacy flaps by Apple, Google, and several app developers for their respective mobile platforms. (See an earlier post about Angry Birds collecting user data)
So why do Apple, Google, and many other app developers, snoop?
Because user data is valuable: many companies pay millions to get customer feedback through surveys or other means.
If a company had a way to obtain this information for free, why not do it?
Especially since there’s nothing explicitly illegal about it.
Indeed, both this claim and previous ones have been filed under various trade practice state regulations, and none of these regulations have explicitly been found by courts to prohibit this kind of data-collection.
Unfortunately for these companies, they may be digging their own grave on the issue.
Because of continued public outcry over the issue, Congress has decided to take action.
Earlier this year the Senate Judiciary Committee formed the Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology and the Law to address these privacy concerns.
In fact, the subcommittee is holding a hearing on May 10 to cover the topic, and Chairman Al Franken has asked representatives from Google and Apple to testify.
The House is taking similar measures by asking for explanations from several of these same companies about their privacy policies.
One way or another, these investigations are sure to end with tighter regulations on if and how companies may collect user data.
For now, though, the main event is in the courts.
And with people racing to file lawsuits as soon as a new story breaks about the latest privacy infraction, Apple, and all others engaging in similar practices, cannot afford to keep snooping.