Phones, GPS, and Your Right to Privacy

So the other day I happened to catch the news on television somewhere while I was shopping, and the report was about how Apple iPhones now have an application built into the phone that tracks the GPS location of the owner of the phone, storing the information so that Apple could access that information and use it for marketing purposes.  What shocked me was that the feature could not be turned off, and that the user had no say in whether or not the information could be recorded, and/or used for marketing purposes.  Now having GSP tracking the location of a phone is not new, it’s in many phones.  But the inability to turn it off is what makes it different from other phones on the market.

An Associated Press article poses some interesting questions and points about the issue:

 The debate over digital privacy flamed higher this week with news that Apple Inc.’s popular iPhones and iPads store users’ GPS coordinates for a year or more. Phones that run Google Inc.’s Android software also store users’ location data. And not only is the data stored — allowing anyone who can get their hands on the device to piece together a chillingly accurate profile of where you’ve been — but it’s also transmitted back to the companies to use for their own research.

Now, cellphone service providers have had customers’ location data for almost as long as there have been cellphones. That’s how they make sure to route calls and Internet traffic to the right place. Law enforcement analyzes location data on iPhones for criminal evidence — a practice that Alex Levinson, technical lead for firm Katana Forensics, said has helped lead to convictions. And both Apple and Google have said that the location data that they collect from the phones is anonymous and not able to be tied back to specific users.

But lawmakers and many users say storing the data creates an opportunity for one’s private information to be misused. Levinson, who raised the iPhone tracking issue last year, agrees that people should start thinking about location data as just as valuable and worth protecting as a wallet or bank account number.

“We don’t know what they’re going to do with that information,” said Dawn Anderson, a creative director and Web developer in Glen Mills, Pa., who turned off the GPS feature on her Android-based phone even before the latest debate about location data. She said she doesn’t miss any of the location-based services in the phone. She uses the GPS unit in her car instead.

“With any technology, there are security risks and breaches,” she added. “How do we know that it can’t be compromised in some way and used for criminal things?”

Privacy watchdogs note that location data opens a big window into very private details of a person’s life, including the doctors they see, the friends they have and the places where they like to spend their time. Besides hackers, databases filled with such information could become inviting targets for stalkers, even divorce lawyers.

Immediately some questions came to mind:

  • What does Apple do with this information that i collects?
  • Does Apple use this information for its own marketing purposes, or will it sell that information to other marketing companies that may be willing to pay for that information?
  • Will it provide that information to Federal, State, or Local law enforcement freely or require a court order?
  • How safe is the information being collected and stores?
  • If it is being stored on the phone, to be retrieved whenever Apple wants to, can that information be stolen?
  • And if it can be retrieved remotely, can anyone else figure out how to trigger the release of that information by illicit and illegal means?
  • What other information is Apple collecting about its users that have not been discovered yet?

Now, I don’t have anything to hide, and I certainly don’t have a problem if the government needs to track me if they have a suspicion I’m doing an illegal activity (after all, I don’t make it a habit to partake in illegal activities), and it does give me some peace of mind knowing the government can track a potential terrorist if there is evidence of illegal activity. However, what I find more bothersome than big brother following my every move is having corporate America doing the same as well, and in the process, receiving spam email and unsolicited mailings as a result of the tracking.  The issue has clearly caught the attention of the government, and even they are alarmed by the policy to store information unencrypted, even though the government would benefit the most from Apple’s decision to use the GPS technology in that manner.

With geotagging a common practice in many photos taken on cell phones and mobile devices, it is already possible to track where a picture was taken.  A recent incident involved Adam Savage of the TV show “Mythbusters,” in which a photo he posted up provided enough geotag information that provided the location of where he had taken the picture, which was taken in front of his house.  As a result, anyone with a little know how could have hacked the geotag to find his home.  In fact, a new website called “ICanStalkYou.com” is doing just that, by scouring Twitter to find pictures uploaded and demonstrating how the geotag location of the picture could be used to track the user’s location, in some cases, where they live (and since it’s all public information, it’s not really a crime).

Now, I don’t presently own an iPhone, but had considered getting one.  And possibly even an iPad in the future.  But knowing that the tracking application is in place, and not knowing what else could possibly be put in the phone to track our activities, suddenly I’m not so comfortable about the idea of getting an iPhone.  And if Apple is doing this, one can only wonder what other companies might be inspired to do the same.  When do we start getting MP3 players that track what kind of music we like, and then advertise similar music to us.  Then again, does the iPod do that already?

Perhaps one day, where you drive, after GPS tracking information is made available  to marketeers, suddenly you get offers from certain gas stations along the route you drive everyday, perhaps you frequent a specific part of town regularly, and you start getting sales offers from stores and restaurants in that area.  Maybe some of you would like that, but what if you didn’t have a choice on whether or not to receive that information.  Where does this all stop?

 The only good news is that there is a new app available for free that prevents the storing of location tracking, by deleting the database on a regular basis to prevent the information from being remotely access by Apple.  The program, called Untrackered, is available for free from the third party App Store Cydia.  Still, despite this free app, the phone is still tracked, and one has to wonder how long it takes Apple to eliminate storing tracking data on the phone and opting instead to update and send the data directly to Apple to eliminate the need to track and store the device, but it would still be collecting the data.

What does this technology mean for the right to privacy of Americans?  How do you feel about this?  And are you concerned or unconcerned by a corporation being able to track a customer, something not even the Federal government may do without a court order.  And if this only the first step, how long before corporations find new and inventive ways to spy on our lives?