By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Big Brother Steve is not watching you

I started writing an “Apple’s not really spying on you” post a little while ago and ditched it on the grounds that I don’t fully understand all the issues involved. (That’s a first, eh?)

But I recommend this post at the Center for Democracy and Technology by John Morris, who speculates that the real reason Apple set up your iPhone to track your location is to save on battery life.

I do think there’s less to this controversy than meets the eye (as Morris writes, the location file “normally never leaves your devices”). Still, Apple (and Google, which does the same thing with its Android operating system) could have done better.

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  1. Mike Benedict

    It is true that the GPS is a major drain on batteries. Never had an iPhone, but on my Droid I would estimate I get less than half the battery life when the GPS or Google Location service is on.

  2. I’m not entirely sure about the article, and I’m not sure about your summary of it either.

    The article starts with conjecture (“The one that strikes me as the most plausible…”) and then goes on to topics of why they need the information and where they went wrong basing it on the initial assumption. (I’d prefer it if he said “If this is the purpose, the file exists..” rather than “To understand why this file exists”) and his point by point privacy by design criticism begs the question that the information is a location services cache.

    There are also piece of the article that are internally inconsistent. He both claims that the information never leaves the phone in most circumstances and says that it it backed up to the computer every time it syncs.

    I do agree that the purpose of this file is benign, but most of the real scary ideas that I’ve heard are how the information could be misused, not on its intended use. (OK, these might be conjecture as well, but conjecture of future events can have a greater likelihood of becoming true. If people keep on guessing an incentive to misuse the data, and a sufficiently profitable is discovered, then an implementation will follow.)

    On the other hand, some of the ideas of how the location data can be misused are silly. People can track you through a lost phone? They can probably get a good idea of who you are and what you are doing through you contacts, calendar, and email. Malware can look for the copy itunes backed up to your computer? Your computer is probably more valuable as a spam sending zombie than to send someone to break into your house while you’re out.

    Also, this news comes on the heels of other privacy concerns: The Michigan ACLU is concerned about the police using CelleBrite machines to grab information out of phones. Sony’s Playstation Network seems to have had a massive data breach that may have included users credit card numbers. A Facebook glitch last week ignored users explicit privacy settings. Its not that long ago since the Epsilon data breach.

    For your own summation, I think you are a bit off when you describe Google as doing the “same thing” when the article you link to emphasizes that they do it differently. (the cull older entries out of their list, they don’t automatically copy the file to other computers or back to your phone from the computer.)

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Andrew: Pretty sure the CDT post is consistent in saying the data never leaves your devices, not your phone. So yes, your phone and your computer.

  3. Christian Avard

    Does this apply to all iPhone users or just those with GPS? I’ll admit I haven’t read the article but someone else I know mentioned the same thing. That’s pretty concerning.

    • Dan Kennedy

      @Christian: I guess earlier models of the iPhone didn’t have GPS? I didn’t know that, since I started with the iPhone 4. Take all my tech comments with a grain of salt, but I think that, by definition, if you don’t have GPS then there’s no location file generated.

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