Commentary

iPhone Knows Where You Live (And Everything Else, Too)

The Guardian broke the story that has every niche and cranny of cyberspace -- down to the precise longitude and latitude -- abuzz this morning, so let's give them first dibs: "Security researchers have discovered that Apple's iPhone keeps track of where you go -- and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner's computer when the two are synchronized."

It evidently all began with last June's iOS 4 update to the iPhone and iPad touch. The capability was disclosed by two data scientists, Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan, who presented their findings at yesterday's O'Reilly Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco. Warden, who once worked for Apple, tells the Guardian's Charles Arthur, "Apple has made it possible for almost anybody -- a jealous spouse, a private detective -- with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you've been."

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Warden and Allan have crafted an app that displays the information your iPhone is recording about your movements.  It is downloadable here.

I don't know about you, but my first reaction to this story was  "Really? The iPhone knows where I am? Duh. Doesn't everything?" It seems that I'm asked if it's okay to use my location whenever I turn on any one of my devices. And what really bothers me is when some software program gets it wrong and tells me I'm pondering the future of privacy a couple of towns up or over from where I'm actually scrolling.

"Poughkeepsie!?!?" I shout. "I haven't been in Poughkeepsie in 30 years."

But more plugged-in heads than mine, including John C. Dvorak, are thoroughly turned off by the revelation. "I don't know about you, but the fact that this feature exists on an iPhone is a deal-killer," he writes in his blog on PC's website. "I wouldn't use such a device. It's not that I care if someone knows where I've been. I just do not like the idea of being tracked like a dog." And, he concludes,"it's just another pathetic part of this surveillance society that we've meekly accepted."

In The New York Times, Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, says: "The secretive collection of location data crosses the privacy line. Apple should know better..." And, Nick Bilton reports, Minnesota Democrat Sen. Al Franken has asked Apple CEO Steven P. Jobs why Apple has been "secretly compiling" the data and what it would be used for.

TheWall Street Journal's Jennifer Valentino-Devries reminds us that a WSJ investigation examination of 101 iPhone apps last December revealed that 56 sent the phone's unique device ID to other companies without users' awareness or consent, and 47 sent location information.

Financial Times, meanwhile, reports that "strong sales of iPhones and Mac computers helped Apple's profits surge 95% in the March quarter, but the company said it was struggling to produce enough of its latest version of the iPad to meet demand."

Amidst all the indignant outrage in the blogosphere, I came across this headline atop a piece by the Washington Post's Alexandra Petri: "iPhone and iPad track users' movement. Do we care?" She has, she points out, installed the FourSquare app that does exactly what everyone is excoriating Apple for doing: alerting everyone she knows that "I'm the Mayor of That One Corner At Barnes and Noble Where The Guy Who Quotes Leviticus Usually Sits But Not This Week Apparently!"

Here's the kicker, folks. This information doesn't go anywhere. It's not beamed up to Scotty. It's not sent to the Publisher's Clearing House database. And Big Brother is too busy installing skycams to worry about your rendezvous at a Teaneck motel.

As is often the case in situations such as this, Apple's PR department is lost in the wild. We can expect, I'd venture, a knowier-than-thou, if somewhat vague, statement by Steve Jobs sometime today. He will tell us why this is a technology that we will all embrace once we understand all the wondrous things we can do with it.

And if we don't appreciate it?

"Fine. Go ahead. Here's a patch. Turn it off. See if we care." Slam.

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