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Apple’s Response to Location Privacy Kerfuffle

David K. Isom

May 2011

It is difficult for Apple and Steve Jobs fans to see Apple’s response to the recent revelations about location data created and stored on and by iPhones.  Yesterday Apple issued a press release about last week’s report by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden that iPhones with the iOS4 operating system create and store an enormous amount of time-stamped data about the phone’s, and inferentially the user’s, location.  The following comments and questions show that Apple’s response is so abstemious as to mislead.  Here are some follow-up questions and comments that would help clarify the legal issues that Apple will need to address.

1. “Tracking”

Apple says that it is not “tracking” the location of your iPhone.  Apple does not appear to dispute the claims of Allan and Warden that their iOS4-enabled iPhones recorded some sort of “lat-long” (latitude longitude location) data about 100 times a day ever since they got their iOS4-based iPhones.  Apple admits that the iPhone records and keeps a cache of Wi-Fi and cell tower data “around” your location.  Apple hints that speed is the reason for the creation and caching of this data as compared to the slower processes of GPS, which hints at the advertising, convenience and economic motivations that drive these faster technologies.  But in light of all of this, to deny that Apple is “tracking” the cell phone is a semantic quibble.

A more forthright response might be:  “We at Apple benefit from this wonderful technology, and so do you.  We will be more forthcoming in the future so that you can make informed decisions about the tradeoffs we all must make between precious privacy and incredible economic and life-style advantages.”

2. Concern

Apple says that people are concerned because they are confused and because creators of location-based technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education.  Perhaps Apple should add that people are rightly concerned because, even a week after the revelations about the surprising (to most people) iPhone location data, Apple is being so cagey about the problem and the solution.

3. Logging

Ouch!  Apple says that the iPhone is not “logging” your location.  This is true, unless “logging” means, as most of us use the word, keeping track of data that we or marketers or judges or law enforcement can get to and use in a pinch.  Or, as Apple says in its very next sentence:  “Rather, [your iPhone is] maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone.”  And, as Apple could add:  “Though the location data on your iPhone is not always accurate for reasons that are not yet clear, and sometimes could show that you were in South America when in truth neither you nor your cellphone has been in South America, it is only fair that we should warn you that criminal and civil courts in the United States are likely to allow such evidence in any criminal prosecution or civil litigation that you might ever care about.”

4. Crowd-Sourced Database

This paragraph contains some helpful information:  when you sync your iPhone to iTunes on your computer, the detailed data about the cells and Wi-Fi hotspots that you have been in will be replicated on your computer.  And:  you can set iTunes to encrypt data.  And:  we plan to stop backing up “this cache” in a new software update soon.  The unspoken implications, though, are probably unsettling to many iPhone users:  “We could have fixed this earlier.  Though there can be aberrations in recorded location data, the overall picture that emerges is surprisingly detailed and accurate.”

5. Data Sent to Apple v. Other Data

Apple says that Apple cannot locate the user based upon geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data routinely sent to Apple.  This is gratifying as far as it goes, but the Senate Judiciary Committee Privacy Subpanel led by Senator Al Franken will want additional answers at the hearing to which Apple and Google have been invited on May 10, 2011.

6. Year-Long Location Data

Apple says that the reason the iPhone stores so much location data for so long is a “bug” in the software, and that the iPhone does not “need” to store more than seven days of this data to assist the phone in the speed and accuracy of its location-based functions.  Does this mean that Apple plans not to sell this data to third parties for marketing?  Also, will this change affect – delete or purge or otherwise affect? – the location data that is already stored on an individual’s phone?  Does Apple have the ability to do this?

7. Turning Off Location Services

Apple responds to a question about what location data is impacted by the Location Services function on an iPhone.  Apple seems to imply that, once a user turns of Location Services, no location data will be generated or recorded or sent to Apple or any third party.  Of course, this implication is way too broad.  Apple seems to ignore GPS location data entirely.  The congressional panel will surely ask follow-up questions about exactly what location technologies are impacted in what way by Location Services.  Not all cell tower location will be disabled, for example.  Otherwise, the cell tower could not find the phone and the phone could not function as a phone.  And Apple phones will still be required to comply with federal regulations requiring a certain minimum ability to locate the cell phone for 911 calls.

8. Other Location Data

Apple responds to a general question about other location data, and reveals that it is working on a database to provide improved traffic (presumably cars) services “in the next couple of years.”  A full answer to this question will probably require an examination of the economics of location-based marketing and other location-based services, which Apple mentions in the next paragraph.

9. Location Data to Third Parties

Last year, the Wall Street Journal showed that an enormous amount of data relating to iPhone and Android apps, including location data, is sold to third parties.  In its press release yesterday, Apple discusses briefly this general issue, and acknowledges that “our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads,” but warrants that the user’s location is not provided to third parties “unless the user explicitly approves.”  The new issues of this last week should re-focus the nation on the details of these important privacy and economic issues.

10. Importance of Privacy and Security

Apple says that it strongly believes that personal information security and privacy are important.  Apple can demonstrate this belief by sharing with the Congress and the rest of us the important details of location privacy so that the Congress and we can make informed decisions about privacy, security, services and risk as we make decisions about to enjoy the marvelous services and products that Apple has created.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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