When I heard researchers had discovered unassuming files on iPhones and iPads containing data tracking the device’s movement since the advent of the iOS 4 operating system, I went in search of an application that could visualize my own phone’s data.
The app I downloaded provided me with a large, zoomable map of the world. The only visible dots hovered over Wisconsin and my homeland of Minnesota. Not too bad.
Then I noticed the play button. I clicked, and watched as the dots swelled and shifted to indicate my travels between Minneapolis, Madison and Chicago last summer. Then they jumped to California, back to Minnesota and all the way to Rome for the timeframe corresponding with my semester abroad.
Then it was back to Minnesota. Wisconsin. California for spring break. The video ended, leaving me with clusters of dots scattered across the U.S. and Europe. Wondering how precise the tracking was, I zoomed in on Madison. The entire isthmus was covered in dots, corresponding with the WiFi hotspots and cell phone towers Apple says the data is collected with – creepy, but not specific enough to make me feel alarmed.
Then I read the FAQ of the site of the app, which was developed by the researchers who first discovered the files. The app, it turns out, is purposefully less specific with the data it presents. The real data is recorded to the minute, and pinpoints locations more accurately.
Cell phones know much more about us than we realize, but this is unprecedented public knowledge of the scope. In a ridiculous, PR-heavy statement released yesterday, Apple announced it plans to stop storing the information for such a long period of time and prevent computers from backing it up when synced with a device. When users indicate they do not want their location-based information to be used, the tracking will stop altogether.
Two consumers have since followed up with a class action suit alleging privacy violations, but what is more interesting is Apple agreed to appear before the federal Senate Judiciary subcommittee on privacy. A letter from Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., questions Apple about why the information exists and to what extent.
“The existence of this information stored in an unencrypted format raises serious privacy concerns,” he wrote in the letter. “Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend and the trips he has taken over the past months or even a year.”
He correctly points out this information could be accessed by anyone who finds an iPhone, iPad or computer that has been synced with one of the devices. It is vulnerable to any viruses, hackers and applications that know where to look.
The Senate hearing is important not only because of these vulnerabilities, but because Apple products are not the only ones storing this data. Apple said it uses the information to gather data on consumer trends, and other companies do this as well. The data might transmit to the companies anonymously, but it is currently too easy to store the information in a way that threatens or misleads the consumer.
I honestly believe Apple meant no harm by storing the data, though they absolutely knew it existed on the devices before the researchers’ discovery. Consumers still deserve to know what their phone knows about them, however, and the Senate subcommittee’s research will be essential to developing policies that are both pro-consumer and pro-technological progress.
Apple’s PR blunder has, however, created an unfortunate aversion to the practice in general. Location tracking serves a purpose, and there are users like myself who would quite honestly like to use the data for various purposes. A recent Wall Street Journal article highlighted that by utilizing information collected via cell phones, researchers are able to recognize illnesses before the user knows they are sick and chart the spread of political ideas, among an enormous number of other applications.
New developments are going to continue pushing what mobile device data can be used for. Developers who figure out how to use the information in ways that are beneficial to users stand to make big money, and apps that utilize location data will continue to increase in number. Regulation should be put in place to ensure those with malicious intentions are punished, but should recognize the novel and progressive possibilities included in the field Apple so graciously brought into the public eye.
Signe Brewster is a junior majoring in life sciences communication. Email her at [email protected].