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iPhone tracking – so not an issue

Apparently Apple is being secretive (and by default, bad). If you own and iPhone, it will track where you’ve been, roughly every few minutes. A neat application- iPhone Tracker – is available for individuals to visualize what type of data is on their phone. None of this data is sent to Apple. It sits on your iPhone and is transferred to your computer when you synch devices. I took a few minutes to download it and play around a bit. Here are two simple images (the timeline is from September 2010 until yesterday) First, the macro view:
iphone tracker

The second is zoomed in a bit, showing just how often I drive to small communities for my daughter’s and son’s hockey games…and the route I drive to Manitoba to visit family. See below:

This is a complete non-issue. We should expect our devices to capture all kinds of stuff about us. There are things on my laptop that I’m sure a security expert could pull out to provide insight into my habits and behaviours. I personally wish Apple would have disclosed this so I can track it, much like I track my laptop activity with Rescue Time. If you use technology, are online, have a mobile phone, your life is quantified. The real issue is not with data collection. It relies with data use – such as police officers downloading data from your phone (assuming this is a true story – it seems a bit out there, but versions of this story appear on numerous news sites). Collecting data has always been easy. But we have privacy and social norms around how we interact in a physical world. Even though the front door of my neighbour’s house is unlocked doesn’t mean that I can go in and search through his bill files and check out his credit card receipts. All of us have personal data stored in our homes/apartments. And we all know it exists. However, we have established norms for use of that data. The online environment doesn’t have those norms yet. So we get all stressed when we find data is being collected without our knowledge. Expect it. Worry about those that find innovative ways of misusing that data. I’d be rather irate if Apple was getting a copy of my location data file. When it’s only on my iPhone or laptop, I can’t say I entirely care.


  1. On one hand, I’m with you. I’m not surprised that my phone tracks me. After all, any cellphone has already had this capability – with or without GPS being enabled. What is problematic here is that information – typically something people can only access via a court ordered search of records (as it uses cellphone tower triangulation) is stored completely openly and unencrypted on our machines. That’s not good data protection, and it says to me not that Apple is nefarious, but that it’s negligent.

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 12:27 pm | Permalink
  2. gsiemens wrote:

    Hi Audrey – I think that we should be able to store information in encrypted form on our devices – that’s my main issue. However, I have lots of non-encrypted personal information – my drivers license, credit card in my wallet, financial statements in a filing cabinet. If it’s in my space, i.e. my property, then the obligation falls on the “use side”, doesn’t it?

    Wednesday, April 20, 2011 at 12:43 pm | Permalink
  3. Moses Wolfenstein wrote:

    I’m not sure your comparison with financial statements in a filing cabinet holds up, or for that matter your drivers license and credit card. As regards the former, those are under lock and key so long as you keep the doors to your residence locked. If you’re extra cautious, you might even lock the filing cabinet they’re stored in. These are security measures that are available for you to take. If you choose not to take them, you’ve opted out of the available protections for your data. The equivalent scenario on the iPhone would be allowing you to opt in or out of having those files encrypted. Without providing you with a choice, you are functionally being forced to leave your door unlocked.

    That said, my extension of the metaphor brings to light the basic issue with your comparison between other analog data bearing objects and digital data. In order for someone to get their hands on your credit card or drivers license, they need to obtain the physical object. You either need to offer the items up willingly, accidentally leave them behind, or have them taken from you through some coercive measure. In all of these instances, you are aware of the fact that you’re rendering up this data (with the possible exception of misplacing your wallet, where there might be a substantial delay between loss of the data and your awareness of that loss).

    Digital data by contrast can be obtained through a wide variety of mechanisms that are more or less invisible to a vast array of users. Even if all users should be aware of the measures they can take to protect their data, many of them are not. This makes it exceedingly hard for them to meet that use side obligation you refer to. When the technical system isn’t in place for them to choose to protect that data, it makes it more or less impossible for them to make that choice.

    Basically software is much more complex than previous technologies, and only a small portion of the population has the level of technical understanding required to powerfully modify these tools. In a perfect world, we would have a computationally literate population that could meet the challenges of this complexity. Since we don’t, we need at least minimum mechanisms for ensuring protections of user data built in to these tools. This is particularly true for tools like those released by Apple where modification of the tool at a structural level (i.e. jail breaking) is sanctioned.

    my 2ยข

    Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 8:32 am | Permalink
  4. Moses Wolfenstein wrote:

    oops, I meant penalized at the end there, not sanctioned.

    Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 8:34 am | Permalink
  5. Amit Garg wrote:

    At first I thought it is kind of non-issue. But I think Moses makes some valid points and opting in/out would be a good way to resolve this. But doubt if everyone will get that. Looks like some bad publicity for an otherwise great product.

    Thursday, April 21, 2011 at 10:36 am | Permalink