Android, iPhone Location Data Raises Privacy Concerns, But Is It New?

4 minute read
Josette Rigsby avatar

Cell phones aren’t just for conversations and playing Angry Birds anymore; theynow come with a handy digital stalking feature -- it’s free without you asking.Your cell tracks everything you do – there’s a map and an app for that. However,not everybody is thrilled with the features.

Mobile, Location Data, Privacy

The web, magazines newspapers and television news have been buzzing with newsof iPhone’s location data tracking and, later, the realization that Andoirddevices are performing similar functions. But, this isn’t new, it isn’t just Android andiPhone and it isn’t just a U.S. concern.

German politician and privacy advocate Malte Spitz used German privacy law(common in most European countries) to force his cell phone carrier to releasedetails that it had recorded about him -- it required a lawsuit against DeutscheTelekom even with the laws. Spitz chose to publish the data collected from August 2009 to February 2010, which showedthat he and his carrier were quite familiar. According to the Zeit Online article

This profile reveals when Spitz walked down the street, when he took atrain, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities hevisited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached byphone and when was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phoneand when he preferred to send a text message.”

The paper published an interactivemap of the data. The New York Times covered the story last month and indicated that,

In the United States, telecommunication companies do not have to reportprecisely what material they collect.”

I suppose everybody knows now.

Apple has released a statement explaining its actions and Google is defending its collection of the data.Apple has said location settings are defined by the users who can elect to turnthem off. However, by stopping the location data collection, services like mapswould no longer work. According to aWall Street Journal report, the opt-in feature isn’t a default-off one.

Android users receive a message at activation indicating that Google's serviceprovides location to applications and that it will collect anonymous data evenwithout any apps functioning. Google stated that all the data it collects are  anonymous by nature and cannot be traced back to the user. Additionaltesting, however, revealed that a unique ID is exchanged between the user’sdevice and Google.

Learning Opportunities

The Rise of Location Data

Mobile devices have become ubiquitous. Recent data by the International Telecommunication Union estimatethat 77% of the of the world’s population, 5.3 billion people, have mobilesubscriptions. Morgan Stanley’s research shows that smartphone shipments will exceed PC shipments thisyear.

Every day, thousands of people voluntarily choose to share location data viamobile devices using popular social networking sites such as Facebook places,Gowalla and Four Square. Mobile and all of its sensor capabilities are being incorporated in enterprise applications such as Enterprise Content Management(ECM) and customer relationship management (CRM). As mobile devices get smarter,the value of the data they can provide is simply too enticing not to be used.Currently, the main use is law enforcement, but utilization by companies torefine services and provide targeted marketing is only inevitable.

So, why all of the outrage about the recent news that iOS devices contain adetailed log containing almost a year of data? Is it really privacy in anenvironment where people share their plans to have morning coffee via 140characters? Is it that they didn’t exactly ask us -- in spite of the opt-insemantics? Is it the creepy feeling that Big Brother is watching? Why do wereally care?

In reality, we should all be aware of what’s possible, our privacy rights andthe implications of so much data about our daily actions sitting aroundunencrypted on a device that could be easily misplaced or stolen. But, unlessyou are a celebrity, have a stalker or have involvement in a crime syndicate, thisisn’t a huge concern for most of us. There is no need to smash your iPhone, iPador Android into oblivion. It is, however, a big deal for Apple, Google and otherorganizations that collect this data, due to the customer perceptionimplications. Enterprises that that are collecting or using location sensordata would be well advised to specifically address how data will be used andprovide employees/customers specific information about their actions to avoidsimilar debacles.

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