Cell phones aren’t just for conversations and playing Angry Birds anymore; they now 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 news of iPhone’s location data tracking and, later, the realization that Andoird devices are performing similar functions. But, this isn’t new, it isn’t just Android and iPhone 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 release details that it had recorded about him -- it required a lawsuit against Deutsche Telekom even with the laws. Spitz chose to publish the data collected from August 2009 to February 2010, which showed that 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 a train, when he was in an airplane. It shows where he was in the cities he visited. It shows when he worked and when he slept, when he could be reached by phone and when was unavailable. It shows when he preferred to talk on his phone and when he preferred to send a text message.”

The paper published an interactive map 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 report precisely 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 turn them off. However, by stopping the location data collection, services like maps would no longer work. According to a Wall Street Journal report, the opt-in feature isn’t a default-off one.

Android users receive a message at activation indicating that Google's service provides location to applications and that it will collect anonymous data even without any apps functioning. Google stated that all the data it collects are  anonymous by nature and cannot be traced back to the user. Additional testing, however, revealed that a unique ID is exchanged between the user’s device and Google.

The Rise of Location Data

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

Every day, thousands of people voluntarily choose to share location data via mobile 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 to refine services and provide targeted marketing is only inevitable.

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

In reality, we should all be aware of what’s possible, our privacy rights and the implications of so much data about our daily actions sitting around unencrypted on a device that could be easily misplaced or stolen. But, unless you are a celebrity, have a stalker or have involvement in a crime syndicate, this isn’t a huge concern for most of us. There is no need to smash your iPhone, iPad or Android into oblivion. It is, however, a big deal for Apple, Google and other organizations that collect this data, due to the customer perception implications. Enterprises that that are collecting or using location sensor data would be well advised to specifically address how data will be used and provide employees/customers specific information about their actions to avoid similar debacles.