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Google and Apple Know Where You Are, Maybe

In April 2011, some interesting discoveries were made regarding location tracking by Apple iPhones and iPads and Google Android smartphones. Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan, British researchers, discovered a file on Allan’s iPhone that provided a detailed list of places Allan had visited in the U. S. and United Kingdom over a 300- day period. The file included a time stamp of each location.

Similarly, Duke and Penn State student researchers, with the help of Intel, found that 15 of 30 popular Android apps systematically communicated location information to a variety of ad networks. Those researchers found that some of the apps transmitted location data only when displaying specific ads, while others did so even while the app was not running. On some Android smartphones, the location data was transmitted as often as every 30 seconds.

Well, as you can imagine, this sent the public into an uproar. Google and Apple (if you’re using one their smartphones) are tracking my every movement? Those organizations know exactly where I was and when I was there? The outcry was unbelievable.

Apple and Google went silent on the subject for several days, with neither returning phone calls or e- mails or posting any information on their Web sites or blogs.

Senator Al Franken, Democrat from Minnesota, quickly scheduled a hearing of the Judiciary Panel’s of the Judiciary Panel’s subcommittee on privacy for May 10, 2011. According to Franken, “ People have the right to know who is getting their information and how (it) is shared and used. Federal laws do far too little to protect this information. . . . No one wants to stop Apple or Google from producing their products, but Congress must find a balance between all of those wonderful benefits (from devices) and the public’s right to privacy.” After getting little or no response from either Apple or Google, Franken went on to say, “I have serious doubts those rights are being respected in law or in practice.”

At the time, Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, was on medical leave, and he came back from medical leave to defend Apple’s location tracking technology. According to Jobs’s right-hand executive Guy Tribble, Apple vice president of software technology, Apple iPhones and iPads only gather location data about nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots. As he explained, “[ Apple] does not share personally identifiable information with third parties for their marketing purposes without customers’ explicit consent . . . [and] Apple does not track users’ locations. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.” Apple intends to continue sending nearby cell tower and Wi-Fi hot spot location data but will only store that data for 7 days.

Google’s long- awaited explanation was similar, with a few twists. Google did admit that Android devices do harvest location data for marketing campaigns. But Google stated that the location-tracking information is not traceable to individual users. Google went on to defend its action in stating that Google does ask Android device owners if they want to turn off the location-tracking feature. According to Alan Davidson, Google’s director of public policy for the Americas, “ If they opt in, all data is made anonymous.”

Questions to Answer:

  1. Location-based tracking is common to all smartphones, for good reason or bad. The popular location- based service company Foursquare has an app so you can check in at various locations to receive discounts, become Mayor, and see who else might be there. DealLeak, which aggregates deals from the likes of Groupon and Living Social, needs your location in order to offer local discounts on products and services to you. How many location-based service apps do you have on your smartphone? How often do you use them and why?
  2. Apple and Google defended their processes by stating that their privacy policies very clearly stated what information would be gathered, how that information would be used, and how and with whom that information might be shared. When was the last time you read the privacy policy of any technology tool, such as a Web browser or app? Do you think very many people actually read these? Do the disclaimers in these privacy policies give the offering organization the right to do anything with your information?
  3. What about location-based tracking in car systems like GM’s OnStar? Those systems know the car’s location to give you driving directions and perhaps identify local restaurants or other venues. Are you comfortable with this? When was the last time you bought a paper map? How much do you rely on your car’s GPS system?
  4. What about smartphone tracking for parents who want to know where their children are and where they’ve been? Minors under the age of 18 have very few privacy rights, especially when it comes to parents’ knowledge of where they are. Are parents going too far in wanting to know where their children are? What are the benefits of such systems for parents? For the children? What does the term “ helicopter parent” refer to?

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