With news this week that both the iPhone and Android phones track and store information about the owners location, and with neither company offering an explanation of their reasons for doing so, has it just become the accepted norm that our privacy is being steadily eroded, and there is nothing we can do about it if we want shiny new toys?
A decade or more ago, the news that phone handset or software makers were tracking and storing the user’s location, without their explicit knowledge or consent, would have raised a storm of protest. As it is today, few other than technology writers, have so much as batted an eyelid.
Back in 2004, the then Information Commissioner, Richard Thomas warned:
“My anxiety is that we don’t sleepwalk into a surveillance society where much more information is collected about people, accessible to far more people shared across many more boundaries, than British society would feel comfortable with.”
Seven years ago his warnings were seen as alarmist, today it could be argued that they were extremely prescient and perhaps even inadequate.
Apple iPhones and 3G iPads are secretly recording and storing details of all their owners’ movements, researchers claim.
The fact that the iPhone and iPad have been doing this since they were released is troubling, but the fact that Apple hasn’t seen the need to explain or justify its reasoning for storing this data, and storing it unencrypted – but hidden from the user, is deeply disturbing.
Of course you could argue that the information is innocuous and of no real use, you’d be wrong. Apart from the obvious interest to law enforcement officials, there are wider and darker implications to this information. It shows where the user goes, and when. Very useful information for suspicious spouses, bosses, and stalkers and a veritable goldmine for behavioural advertisers. However I am sure that this has nothing to do with Apple patenting an Advertisement in the Operating System, back in late 2009.
This patent by Apple was for a system whereby an advert would be displayed and the advert would lock the operating system of the device until the user acknowledged the advert by clicking on it. Very handy, if say it was sent to you at 8.47am every morning, the same time you walk past Starbucks on your way to work every day, and renders your phone inoperable until you click on it.
Android Gives Up Users Too
Those using Android handsets thanking their lucky stars that they plumped for Android instead of Apple, aren’t much better off. Android handsets do the same thing, albeit with a limit to how much data it stores, but unlike Apple’s iPhone, the Android handsets appear to send this information to Google, with a unique identifier.
Android handsets also do something else a little creepy too, if you have an Android handset, then it most likely has been storing your internet routers exact location, and sending it back to Google, for Google to share with the world. This is so Google knows exactly where you are when you use its websites and services:
When phones running the Google OS detect any wireless network, they beam its MAC address, signal strength and GPS coordinates to Google servers, along with the unique ID of the handset.
If you have wireless internet, and know how to view or get your MAC address for your router, you may want to enter it into this website to see if Google is aware of it, and sharing it. You may think that this is little different from your IP address that you share with every website you visit anyway, but again, you’d be wrong. Your IP address generally only gives the location of the servers that you use to get onto the internet, i.e. Virgin Media’s servers, BT’s, Talk Talk’s etc, very rarely anywhere near your actual location. The information sent back to Google by your Android phone, is pretty much your exact address, moreover IP addresses change, MAC addresses do not, not without a new router. All very useful for behavioural advertising, and Google is the world’s largest ad vendor.
It is possible to opt out of this, but the location page that allows you to do this does not make it clear exactly what is being stored, nor what Google will do with the supposedly anonymous information.
So should we just accept these increasingly intrusive business practices as part of living in the 21st Century? Or should we be drawing a line in the sand and saying, ‘Enough’?