Friday, April 22, 2011

Hey, Where Did My iPhone Go?

Surprise!  A cell phone is a location-tracking device.
One of the big news items this week was that Apple iPhones collect and store location information.  Some researchers posted details and also software to show collected data on a map.

But this is not a surprise, right?  It shouldn’t be to most people in the tech industry.  We’ve always understood that every cell tower, and more recently every WiFi access point, has the potential to use signal association data to say “this particular device was just nearby.”  Collect those records together and the network operators know where your iPhone (or other mobile phone) has been. 
What’s potentially interesting about the iPhone revelation this week is that the data is stored on your phone and synced to your computer.  And, seemingly, sent to Apple.
Location as an element of information about users is really very interesting data.  It has value to you and it has value to those who want to sell you things.  For you, location data allows you to get help with questions like “how do I get from wherever it is that I am to the nearest gas station?”  For businesses, the answer is obvious.  Your phone says you’re near a Starbucks, FaceBook says you like a grande triple cappuccino extra dry, and oh look, FourSquare has a coupon for you.
I’m very interested in location data (I'll have more blog posts on the subject in the near future) and how it impacts the way we provide services to users and the way users make use of services.  If I know you are on a smartphone driving down the highway, I might have my application or service interact with you differently than if you seem to be stationary, on a desktop computer, in a library. And of course the privacy implications of location data is really interesting stuff.  I’m interested in how to preserve a user’s privacy while still allowing for location-enabled services.  Storing the data on my phone and computer and sending it to Apple without my knowledge probably isn’t the answer.
CNN reported on this situation and made it seem as if the data is trivially available to any casual hacker (or jealous spouse).  It’s not yet clear to me whether this is true. 
ARS Technica says that Senator Al Franken was motivated to write a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs with 9 pointed questions about the situation.  They seem like pretty reasonable questions to me.  Let’s hope he gets some answers.
In a report that seems credible to me, F-Secure asserts that Apple is using this data to build up their own location database like the ones that Google and Skyhook have.  I’m not sure that they can get everything they need by watching us walk/drive around with our iPhones, but it’s likely that they can get some useful data toward building a large location database (or at least refining one).
So is this really a problem?  My take is that we shouldn’t be surprised that by using wireless devices we can be tracked.  We have a right to be surprised (and annoyed) that we haven’t been clearly told the details and given more meaningful choices.  We have a right to wonder whether the data is anonymized at Apple, and under what circumstances it would be turned over to authorities.
Apple should have been more clear in giving users a choice.  And they should be doing more to protect that valuable data so that a hacked computer or phone (mine or theirs!) can’t expose our location data. 
What’s your opinion?  Please share this blog post with your friends, and please leave a comment here with your thoughts.



  1. so, based on what you have said, if you accidentally dropped your i phone into Shinnecock Bay and a Toadfish ate it, the Toadfish could then be tracked as well. This is not fair,because the Toadfish did not click "i agree" to the terms of service.

  2. I agree with the perspective that we shouldn't be surprised when our smartphones are smart, and that less-than-transparent actions on behalf of large companies should be looked at with large doses of skepticism, if not outright concern.

    By the way, and no disrespect meant to Franken, but Rep. Ed Markey should get a shout out here.

    He has really been leading the way in issues of privacy/technology on the hill IMHO:

  3. Thanks for the link, Josh!

    And thanks for keeping the toadfish meme alive, Tony. :)