For a while now, I’ve been thinking about the whole issue of mobile devices and privacy, particularly with regard to an individual’s location. Like it or not, wireless providers (and law enforcement authorities) can find you by means of your portable phone or computing device.
Auto insurance companies, of course, might find such tracking useful. If an insurer knows where you drive (for example, into a high-risk area) and how often you drive there, it can adjust your premium rates according to the risks it believes you are taking. The same can also apply to your speed and other aspects of your driving behavior, but it’s really location that concerns us here.
Recently, Apple Inc. responded to mounting concern over the privacy of its mobile devices, saying it does not track iPhone users, although its software does contain “flaws” affecting the collection of data required for location-based services, according to an online posting of The Wall Street Journal.
While Apple claims it does not maintain the location of individual iPhones, the company admits it does keep a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cellular towers, portions of which it feeds to a device in order to quickly provide local information, said the posting. “Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone,” the company says on its website. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”
According to the Journal posting, the company's response comes after researchers found a file containing location information on the iPhone and Apple's iPad tablet computer. The discovery raised questions about Apple's data collection practices, a theme that has affected other companies, and piqued Congressional interest.
In another story, Computerworld reports that Apple says users are “confused” about the issue. In a statement posted on its website, Apple defended the practice, but admitted that there were bugs in its software that would be fixed “in the next few weeks” with an update to iOS—the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad.
Interestingly, the Journal posting notes that Apple claims its database is more efficient at finding an iPhone's location than a global positioning system satellite, which can require several minutes to find a device. For easier access, a portion of the database is stored in each iPhone.
So what do we have here? We have a database and technology that allow Apple—and presumably others—to locate a device based on its proximity to cell towers (and perhaps a bit of triangulation). Apple says they’re not trying to locate you, but it seems they just can’t help themselves. It seems clear that Apple is equivocating—caught between their desire to provide “local” information to connected users while also protecting their customers’ privacy. Apple’s response is a bit like your six-year-old saying (truthfully) that he didn’t take the $5 from the top of your dresser, because actually, aided by some mysterious gusts of air, the $5 “fell” off the dresser and into his pocket.
Such dissembling may be charming from a youngster, but from a responsible corporate citizen it is ridiculous. But Apple is not alone in this dilemma. Any device provider that tracks location—including auto insurance companies—needs to wrestle with the reality that they may also be violating customers’ privacy.
It should be interesting to see what Congress and the courts do with this one. Apple, meanwhile, has acknowledged the “flaws,” and says it will allow users to opt out of being located.
Ara C. Trembly (www.aratremblytechnology.com) is the founder of Ara Trembly, The Tech Consultant, and a longtime observer of technology in insurance and financial services.
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