Talking tech since 2003

Yesterday technology news was filled with stories regarding the Apple iPhone and the fact that it has recently been discovered to store a history of location coordinates.  This news came after technology researchers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan discovered a somewhat hidden file on the device while doing research for an entirely different project.  Immediately after this news surfaced people began crying foul left and right, declaring the activity as a blatant violation of privacy.  And while I cannot argue that this action on the part of Apple is indeed a bit big brother-ish, we really have to sit down and ask ourselves if this is all that big of a deal.

First and foremost, it’s incredibly important to consider that the file is simply stored on the device and any computers that the iPhone syncs or backs up to.  The file is never – as far as we know – sent out to Apple or any of its contractors or agents, and I am confident that the researchers that discovered the file would have realized and shared if the file was indeed transmitted.  So off the bat, the privacy violation concept has been diminished because no one ever sees the data.

And even if the file was transmitted, would it really be a big deal?  When looking at all of the personal tracking that is done on a daily basis, something that many people seem to have neglected to consider throughout this entire ordeal, I honestly wouldn’t find it all that worrisome even if Apple did some how collect and use said data.

Anyone who has ever watched a modern television crime drama (or follows real-world news stories) knows that mobile carriers often-times archive the geographic locations of end-users when they place a call or make a data request.  Of course carriers also use this for their own gain in order to track “roaming” fees and overages as well, but the fact of the matter is that the data is still collected and maintained.

In addition to this, many users completely overlook the fact that GPS satellites have the ability to record location data and queries.  With the growing popularity of location-based services such as geographic yellow-page listings, I’m actually amazed that we have yet to see people express concern over these services as well.  After all, being able to find a pizza restaurant in the middle of nowhere does come with a slight privacy expense.

Moreover, the implementation of useful location-based utilities such as Apple’s “Find My iPhone” service (recently made free) have been proven time and time again to be of benefit to end-users.  But we don’t question privacy then, do we?

Outside of all of this, you would be flat-out flabbergasted at the amount of personal data, including location-based information, that people share every day at their own free will.  You see, services like Foursquare and Facebook’s more recently implemented check-in feature not only allow users to make their locations known to the world, but allows for potential stalkers to easily find out an individuals favorite restaurant, pub, social hangout, or even home and workplace.  Even posts to social networking sites like Twitter can and do contain location coordinates if the user chooses to send them.  And people do in fact choose to share this information.  So in retrospect, should we really be fussing over a locally stored non-shared file?

When it boils down to me, I can honestly see this matter both ways.  Even though I’m not buying into the privacy concern, I am a bit disappointed in Apple for not being more open about the implementation of this location tracking, because even though there is no evidence to suggest they’re collecting or using the information for anything I still think they should have made their actions a bit more clear just to satisfy highly privacy conscious individuals.

On top of this, think of the useful apps and utilities that could have come out if Apple had been more open about the tracking and had they allowed developers to utilize this data inside of their applications.  Seriously.  I was in San Francisco with a dear friend of mine the other day, and after parking the car we ventured a bit too far away in an area we were unfamiliar with.  Do you know how awesome it would have been if he could have pulled out his iPhone to backtrack his steps?  I don’t see an issue with the location data being stored, but if Apple is using up storage space on users’ devices (as minimal as it may be), I think that said users should be able to take advantage of it.

Last but not least, Apple is entirely in the legal clear on this issue.  You know those terms of service [PDF] that none of use bother or care to read?  Well, BGR recently did the dirty work for us and dug out the exact text in the iPhone’s TOS that states that what Apple (and just about every major handset manufacturer) is doing is not only legal but to be expected.  Below is the exact text, which essentially axes any and all possibility that consumers or privacy advocates will have any chance in court;

Apple and its partners and licensees may provide certain services through your iPhone that rely upon location information. To provide and improve these services, where available, Apple and its partners and licensees may transmit, collect, maintain, process and use your location data, including the real-time geographic location of your iPhone, and location search queries. The location data and queries collected by Apple are collected in a form that does not personally identify you and may be used by Apple and its partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. By using any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its partners’ and licensees’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data and queries to provide and improve such products and services. You may withdraw this consent at any time by going to the Location Services setting on your iPhone and either turning off the global Location Services setting or turning off the individual location settings of each location-aware application on your iPhone. Not using these location features will not impact the non location-based functionality of your iPhone. When using third-party applications or services on the iPhone that use or provide location data, you are subject to and should review such third-party’s terms and privacy policy on use of location data by such third party applications or services.

In conclusion, I really don’t see that big of a deal in the location history in itself, but I really think that Apple should have been a bit more up front with it; something that I’m sure they’ll have to do now that the facts are out in the open.  What do you think?  Is this a violation of privacy?  Is Apple in the clear legally?  Morally?  Let us know in the comments!

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