The Privacy Paradox

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

38 comments Add your comment

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jillknight

May 9th, 2011
7:03 am

You write that that the iphone tracking is a …” much ballyhooed iPhone tracking bug” ?
Hello. this is not a “bug” And “ballyhooed”? Are you sure you even know what this word means? You need to get a dictionary before you write an article http://bit.ly/iSIvn9

Proletariat Prose

May 9th, 2011
7:21 am

U.S. wants access to three Bin Laden widows. Doesn’t that say it all? It was a cell phone what kilt the beast, you know. Those three widows apparently fought over the cell phone in a desperate attempt to win a game of Angry Birds. This brings up a relevently ungermane topic:

SEVEN DAYS IN MAY IN PAKISTAN

OBL hid near Pakistani military bases. So what? How easy would it be to hide seditious elements near West Point, or any Air Force base or the White House? The enemy is always us first, then the enemy second, then, thirdly, ranks the enemy of our enemy, (which is our friend). Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer. (stolen word for word from the Preamble to “Mein Pet Kampf”).

Did elements of Pakistan’s military and political infrastructure know about OBL’s hideout? Probably. It’s long been known that Pakistan is actively suppressing Islamic Radicalism. So far, cooler heads have prevailed. (insert JFK emoticon rolling his eyes here).

Andy

May 9th, 2011
8:37 am

The big difference between someone using facebook or foursquare to alert people of their location have the option to announce it. If a phone, government, or any other entity or object is announcing your where-abouts without your explicit permission, that is when there is an issue.

matt

May 9th, 2011
8:56 am

funny how when oil prices rise big, the gas stations within 1-3 days run the price up but when oil tanks from 113 to 97, they don’t budge. could be the refinieres or both but either way we get screwed by these crooks

Oakhurstdawg

May 9th, 2011
9:14 am

Hi Bob,

Below is a link for Apple’s iphone product. It’s 159 pages long. Can you summarize that for me? I’m not a lawyer, so having trouble understanding quite a bit of it. But I still feel the need to educate myself. How much would you charge to help me understand this document?

Thanks bunches!

http://images.apple.com/legal/sla/docs/iphone.pdf

Patriot

May 9th, 2011
9:32 am

While there may be a paradox between the willingness of folks to put their personal information out for everyone to see and still wanting privacy, the real issue is that regardless of what information is captured by online services, it is their almost exuberant enthusiasm to hand any and all of this information over to the government without warrant that should trouble everyone. While companies and individuals can be dangerous, nothing on earth is as dangerous as a government, especially the US government. When one looks at every horrible thing that any individual or company has done in the history of man, their scope has been limited except in those circumstances where the power, guns, prisons, regulatory apparatus, etc. of the government has been employed to cause mass destruction and abuse.

Yes, I care and everyone should care what information is being held, shared, exploited, etc. especially if the information is untrue (why is it that credit agencies cannot be sued for libel when they get the information wrong and it hurts you financially, etc?) but everyone should be more concerned that the government is using that information against all of us to protect their power and to undermine any opposition to the status quo that keeps them all in control and their friends ridiculously wealthy.

Patriot

May 9th, 2011
9:34 am

The problem as always is not a private company having your information but rather the government having ready access to it because the company is in bed with the government. The greatest evils in the history of civilization have not been committed by men or by companies, but by those same entities in league with the power and force of government.

Stephen Wilson - Lockstep

May 9th, 2011
9:39 am

Mr Barr, I think you overstate the “paradox”. We all know human behavior is not always entirely consistent. The conflicted concerns you highlight here aren’t even inconsistent: what users want is control over their affairs and over their personal information.

What users get online is a tremendously unfair bargain in social networking and the rest. While Facebook and Google are tremendous services, by now essential infrastructure, they do come at a hidden cost. These informopolies thrive on the gargantuan and unseen drifts of personal information they actively cultivate as a side effect of their surface activities.

It behoves the informopolies to handle personal information transparently, and to not take liberties as they do so often, with ventures like Google Buzz, the Street View wifi collection, the iPad’s geolocation stores etc. These companies have got form. We should learn from the unfair information bargain to date, and treat with great skepticism the next frontiers, like automatic facial recognition, and Social Identity broking.

Stephen Wilson, Lockstep, Sydney.

Washington Insider

May 9th, 2011
9:45 am

Obama Got Osama!

We all should have known it would take a Muslim NON-American to catch a Muslim NON-American.

Olderandwiser49

May 9th, 2011
10:00 am

“Not surprisingly, Congress is getting in on the act… and calling for congressional hearings.”

Absolutely! This is by far the most critical issue facing the populace today. Where are the Congressional hearings on Jarrett, Holder, Napolitano, Fannie Mae and Freddy Mac, Obama’s czars, overspending, over-borrowing, over-taxing, drilling stoppages, fuel prices, Obamacare, job losses, illegal immigration, ad nauseum?!? This is nothing more than another smoke screen to take the attention away from the true issues destroying this nation, and so politicians can show they are “doing something” to protect American citizens. This Congress and this Administration are little more than wastes of space and air.

killerj

May 9th, 2011
10:04 am

Big brother is trying to control all means of communication,support free internet for your benefit,funny how they act when you are looking back at them,Go Tea Party.

Really

May 9th, 2011
10:06 am

I don’t have an issue with them getting data from my stuff, but I do have a problem when they sell my data and make money off of my name. Where is my cut, isn’t that like stealing music from a musician?

Washington Insider

May 9th, 2011
10:15 am

The real reason many of the specific details on the killing of Osama bin Laden are being kept so secret is that Pentagon leaders are ashamed and humiliated that the President ordered the terrorist leader to be taken in out in true Chicagoland “Gansta” style with a drive-by shooting.

the watch dog

May 9th, 2011
10:24 am

The way to stifle the “mining of personal information” Is anti-trust legislation. There should be internet trade barriers that prohibit the dissemination of personal information over state lines. Already there appears that manufactures like Apple have monopoized the personal information business. Once websites become aware that information of sorts will be restricted from crossing state lines they will be more careful.
The people will not permanently tolerate a monopoly and it appears that the “information mining businesses” are monopolizing the personal information business.

Tim

May 9th, 2011
11:34 am

After thre weeks people will tolerate anything.

David Granger

May 9th, 2011
12:36 pm

Easy fix to this one. Make it illegal for anyone…private or corporate…to POSSESS personal information about anyone unless that person has given them permission to obtain and keep it. (And have very strict guidelines about when and under what conditions a person can be required to yield private information.) And private information can NEVER be sold, even if collected legally.
Our right to privacy has been outstripped by technology…and we need the law to catch up.

Skeeter

May 9th, 2011
1:35 pm

Most of the verbage that is uttered over cell phones and the like is without merit and a waste of breath. Step away from the cell phone. You are not that important. As for you Facebookers, nobody cares about the minutiae of your boring lives.

lamonte

May 9th, 2011
1:57 pm

Nobody is mourning Bin Laden. He was not only a mass murderer, he was the perfect excuse for the Bush crowd to invade Iraq and forget all about Afghanistan for many years. The damage these twisted people did will be felt for generations to come. I am happy Obama went after Bin Laden. However, I am sad and angry that his administration has chosen not to prosecute the war criminals.

[...] Privacy, merger hearings this week; kids' mobile privacy; Google …Washington Post (blog)Privacy ParadoxAtlanta Journal Constitution (blog)News: Apple, Google to Testify in Senate Privacy Hearing [...]

carlosgvv

May 9th, 2011
4:15 pm

People who understand Big Business in America know they will stoop to any depths to make a profit. If this means rigging their products to gain unauthorized information on their customers, they will not hesitate to do it. Don’t look for any help from our politicans as they are completely bought and paid for by Big Business.

Proletariat Prose

May 9th, 2011
4:39 pm

The end of the OBL era is bringing to a crescendo the Pakistan Islamic Radical/Moderate Rift in the military-political theatre. They are arguing it out as we speak. “I say we wax the infidels”. “I say we trade with them and live in peace.” “You’re a moron”. “You’re a dope”. “Liar”. “Idiot”. I keel you. I keel you.

and so on and so on

Hope they agree not to keel us.

[...] Privacy, merger hearings this week; kids' mobile privacy; Google …Washington Post (blog)Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) -The Mac Observer -TMC Netall 104 news [...]

Dave

May 9th, 2011
6:06 pm

How about express disclosure as to what information the phones are collecting and who it goes to for what purpose and then express opting in to each use? Oh, they, the carriers and manufacturers don’t want the hassle, and the loss of the valuable data. I don’t disagree with what you say; but, the problem with the issue is there is an unlevel playing field. Want what the phones offer, give away your privacy completely. This is a matter of time and interest on the part of consumers, Congress and regulators. Cell phone, computer, software and “apps” are adhesion contracts and there’s a lot of precedent for regulating their use. Insurance is regulated, as are airlines and other “industries.” So far, we and our representatives haven’t quite caught on to the idea that corporations will take all that they can get in the way of data until someone steps in and imposes some rules.

Snafu

May 9th, 2011
6:45 pm

WOW..the truth hurts many and they will find all kinds of excuses not to understand what Barr has written. This is typical of dumb/as.s Americans who will complain but be willing participants in the scheme. On one hand you want privacy and bash big government on the other hand willing to accept intrusion of your private life so you can have your toys.

Really, I don’t want to hear your conversations nor do I give a damn about what your wear, where you are going, what you ate or what color is your crap. Barr has laid out the reason why companies continue to scoop up your info is because you think people really care about your daily lives. People connect to people in other states, countries and call them friends when they know nothing of the person on the other end. Gullible, ignorant and uneducated often leads to the demise of freedoms. Then you have these idiots who like to say “well if you have nothing to hide its ok” well, if you want your info known then go post it in the newspaper or take out a bill board ad for that is what you want. I prefer my privacy and to be left the hell alone even if I have nothing to hide.

And people buy electronics like going through a revolving door when the gadget they have works perfectly well, but they have to have the latest and greatest of already obsolete technology. By the time it hits the market they are producing more gadgets for the idiots to buy. When are they going to learn????

[...] Privacy, merger hearings this week; kids' mobile privacy; Google …Washington Post (blog)Atlanta Journal Constitution (blog) -The Mac Observer -TMC Netall 106 news [...]

Jeb

May 9th, 2011
7:15 pm

Washington insider – how much do you hate having a black president? The only thing your insida is a mcdonalds!

Shark Punch!

May 9th, 2011
9:21 pm

Let’s face the facts–corporate giants like Google, Adobe, Microsoft, Amazon, etc., do not have the best record when it comes to privacy concerns. Remember when browser cookies first became prevalent across the Internet? Casual users were (and still are) told that so-and-so website was storing a small bit of information on your local machine to “enhance your browsing experience” or “deliver targeted content appropriate to you,” when their true purpose was to leverage usage data in order to make more money on banner/pop-up ads.

Same stuff, different day. Until there exists a smartphone that *easily* allows me to find out what is being stored about me (and give me the option to permanently delete it), I’ll steer clear, thank you very much.

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Barbara

May 10th, 2011
9:07 am

Skeeter and Snafu are absolutely correct. A former friend decried the Bush administration when the Dept. of Homeland Security was enabled to trace overseas phone calls. As I told her, if you’re not doing anything illegal, then you’re not a target, and trust me, you’re phone calls just aren’t that important. This is the same person that was one of the first I know to get a Facebook account and set up a blogsite. There you have it. As I’ve always said, the price for freedom is personal responsibility. It’s the liberals that complain about invasion of their privacy but have the least important information to gather. Remember, it’s all about them. The anti-corporate mantra is too old to be an issue anymore. It’s the corporations that have made it convenient for these morons to play with their electronics all day.

southpaw

May 10th, 2011
11:04 am

This is why my wife and I keep two OLD cell phones. We use one, and the other is the “phone insurance” we were once advised to get. Our phone won’t download the lastest apps, and guess what? We’re doing just fine without them. The phone does let us do one (almost forgotten?) thing when we’re on the road, though. Whoever isn’t driving can TALK TO SOMEONE IF NECESSARY. If we’re on the road and want to find out something, we WAIT until we get home, then turn on the computer. Now if we can just figure out whether the phone has GPS and, if so, how to remove it…

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Dr. Pangloss

May 11th, 2011
10:48 am

And today we learned that there’s an on/off switch for the tracking function. Anyway, you could just turn the phone off when you go to the massage parlor.

Jane Doe

May 12th, 2011
12:34 am

Okay – fire up your tinfoil hats, folks – CLEAR database by Thompson-West. Search for it, and let the gasping in shock begin!

Here is what THIS beast is all about: for a fee, you can find out anything about anyone you’d want. All you have to do is start a collection company and start tripping down the rabbit hole.

It works this way: You sign up for that Utility and the fine print reads that “business partners” or “business agreements” … something like that … get your data and you have no right to opt out.

https://clear.thomsonreuters.com/collections.htm

There it is – the biggest invasion of your privacy ever!

Jane Doe

May 12th, 2011
12:37 am

By the way – Thomson Reuters and West are all mixed in together – one owns the other or its all the same company.