Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean your iPhone is not following you

One of my initial ideas for a post to inaugurate this blog was going to be something about how the use of smartphones equipped with GPS means that many users of these devices freely share important data about their movements. Then came the revelations concerning the iPhone apparently storing data about where the user had been in a file held on the phone itself.

The controversy caused by this news may to some extent reveal ignorance of how smartphones use locational data, but I don't agree that media coverage of the issue has just been sensationalist. There are important issues involved, and to be frank the initial reaction from Apple in this case didn't suggest that they see the importance of the reports. It was as if they were relying on the loyalty of many of their users to defend the company, even though in most cases such people could only speculate about why this data was being held on the iPhone. The response from Steve Jobs to a question on the issue was the very unreassuring claim that Apple don't store people's locations, but Google do. A cheap shot at the competition but with no explanation on the central issue.

Eventually they came good and we got a more comprehensive, and therefore more reassuring, statement on the issue. It turned out that much of the guesswork about the purpose of this data was correct in that Apple could use it to improve the ability of the iPhone to get a useful GPS position fix. This helps to explain why much of the data apparently being stored was not related to precise positions of the phone user, but instead to locations in the surrounding area which represent mobile phone masts and, it seems, wifi network locations that have also been stored in a centralised database. I still don't think the suggestion that it was just a question of users being poorly educated by the company was a helpful description of the situation, but at least we got the explanation.

As somebody who uses a normal GPS regularly, I know how long it can take for the unit to get an accurate position if I last used it in Madrid and now I'm in the Canary Islands. Obviously if for some reason the satellite coverage is not good too then this kind of assisted GPS becomes much more useful. The problem was that Apple were storing the data on the phone in an unencrypted format, and this is what raised the alarm about phone user's movements being potentially available to others.

Privacy issues and control of user data are going to become more important as this technology extends its usage. We've already seen in the case of Facebook that some of the new companies involved in social media have a fairly carefree attitude on this issue, and only under pressure have they tightened controls. Google have already got into trouble for gathering wifi data at the same time as their Street View cars were collecting data for that application. Protection against potential abuse shouldn't depend on the user having to deactivate services which might cross the boundary. Its important that there is a degree of transparency about the use which manufacturers and operators make of our data, it's not a trivial issue

One thing that those of us who have worked with conventional geographical information systems in commercial usage soon realise is that data confidentiality is hugely important. In this sense it becomes unsatisfactory to say that if you want your smartphone to be smart then don't worry about the data it collects. In some ways the issue needs to be turned around so that those who provide services based on location have to justify the possession and the use of the data they collect from their customers. 

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