Americans are fascinated with electronic communication devices; “obsessed” might be a more accurate descriptor. This has created a noticeable, perhaps bizarre, contradiction. On the one hand, users of personal communication devices willingly, almost delightedly, send to the world detailed descriptions of their daily lives; from what they eat, to where they go, to what they see, and how they feel. They want such devices to reveal the quickest route to get somewhere, and to tell them the cheapest price for an item they covet once they get there.
On the other hand, when one of the companies that makes such communication devices is discovered or alleged to be gathering data showing where users are when they use the devices, many of those very same users cry “foul.” The companies themselves are whipped-sawed between meeting customers increasing demands for ever more useful “apps,” and efforts to maintain some degree of privacy of users’ information.
It should come as no surprise that companies may be storing information obtained from users when users connect to their computer platforms to update or backup these devices. Perhaps it is something users know, but are unwilling to admit or seriously discuss until it is front-page news.
For example, it was recently discovered that the iPhone and iPad, both produced by Apple, have been storing user location data in a file. The data contains information showing locations of cell tower and Wi-Fi spots, in addition to information noting when the user was connected thereto. Apple uses the information to improve speed and accuracy when users access a device’s location services.
While Apple may not be logging this information for nefarious purposes, there are reports that police have used this capability in investigations. According to a researcher who spoke with PC Magazine, “Evidence from the location tracking database stored on iPhones ‘has been used in actual criminal investigations and yes, it’s led to convictions.’”
This is particularly troublesome since law enforcement agencies have taken broad steps to access data contained on cell phones, even without warrants. CNET recently reported that the federal government had conducted business last year with a Swedish company that offers a course teaching how to obtain GPS information from various Apple products, including the iPhone.
In response to the news coverage, Apple put together a “Q&A” on the company’s website explaining that the information was sent anonymously; that they are “not tracking the location of your iPhone”; and that they have “no plans to ever do so.” The company also has promised to fix the problem in the next software update.
Apple’s critics, however, are pressing the issue; even going so far as to file a class action lawsuit in Florida by users of the suspect Apple devices. The lawsuit outlines a worst-case scenario, alleging that “Apple collects the location information covertly, surreptitiously, and in violations of law.” The suit also complains that users are completely powerless to stop the practice.
Not surprisingly, Congress is getting in on the act – firing off accusatory letters to the major companies, including Google and Apple, and calling for congressional hearings.
Such steps may draw attention to these issues, but if history is any guide, will do little to truly enlighten either the public or lawmakers. Legislation may mollify critics of Apple, Google and Facebook; and lawsuits may result in eventual settlements. But the hard questions having to do with balancing the public’s desire for ever-more sophisticated electronic communication devices against the companies’ need for user information in order to respond to such demands, remains.
This underlying problem will be solved only by consumers taking the time to educate themselves about what they are surrendering in privacy to gain in convenience. It will also necessitate the companies themselves to be more forthcoming with consumers and incorporate reasonable privacy mechanisms in their products. Class-action lawsuits and knee-jerk legislation will only aggravate the situation.
-by Bob Barr, The Barr Code