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Apple Locationgate: Big Brother Or Oh, Bother?

Apple Locationgate: Big Brother Or Oh, Bother?

April 25, 2011
Wired ran an interesting article over the weekend about all this recent "Locationgate" business. If you haven't heard, it seems the Apple iPhone and 3G iPad keep all user location data on board in perpetuity, saved as an unencrypted file dubbed "consolidated.db." Many apps and native iOS services use and gather location data pretty much constantly, so that's neither new nor problematic in itself. However, that data, according to Apple, is supposed to be anonymously copied to their servers and deleted off your device every 12 hours. Some analysts have made a convincing argument that the issue is probably a bug, while others perceive it as overt proof of Apple's Orwellian "Big Brother" motives. But does any of this even matter? And does anyone even care? David Pogue of the New York Times doesn't. He mentions that the .db file itself is never transferred to anyone (Apple included) and remains accessible only by those with physical possession of the device in question. That's a big point, and -- to me -- the entire crux of the matter. Adding leverage is further evidence that your location is only accurate to within the nearest service tower. It's not even precise enough to go address by address! As a connected people, we must accept that we live in a connected age. Much of the populace has social-networking accounts and unwittingly shares loads of inappropriate or seedy personal information with the user base at large. Folks speak loudly in public, drive tag-traceable vehicles, leave behind copies of identifying receipts, and often go to great lengths to stand out from the crowd. Security cameras are in stores, traffic cameras are at major intersections. People are everywhere. A stalker or identity thief has little trouble finding out where you and your loved-ones reside without resorting to stealing your phone and -- before you remotely wipe it -- running some specially-designed code to find out where you live and where your daily habits take you.

Washington DC to New York from Alasdair Allan on Vimeo.

The further fear that this will encourage police to subpoena or seize your electronic belongings is also unfounded. Think: If a search warrant were issued in your investigation, it's application is probably far more far-reaching than just your mobile phone. Authorities can storm your home, take all your things, and find whatever there is to be found. On the contrary, positive law enforcement uses of such data far outweigh the negative: 911 callers can be actively located, accident victims with foggy memories can backtrack more reliably, recovered or escaped abductees can provide quality geographical leads, and missing persons may be pinpointed more accurately in the case that somebody finds their iPhone or iPad. More tragedies averted and more justice served can't be all bad. Thinking about the potential of this technology -- an accident though it may or may not be -- I've come to the conclusion that I'd probably opt in to something like this if it were presented as a fully-supported and feature-rich system function. I've plotted my own personal activity map and find it fascinating to see where I've been at a given point in time. If the story broke differently, people might be lauding this as the next great travel companion or an efficient alternative to costlier child-tracking for world-weary Mom and Dad. In reality, I'm a fairly private person. I don't go out carousing, I don't fight and scream and run amok. I follow the doctrines of law set forth by my government, and I understand my rights and responsibilities. That said, I believe wholeheartedly in due process and don't want people constantly watching me, because privacy is valuable no matter who you are or where you live. I get that, and I appreciate the principal behind aggressively maintaining that privacy. But I'm in Pogue's camp here. In other words, if it's a bug, wonderful; if it isn't, ditto. I'm only disappointed that all this bad publicity can damage Apple's image if they don't act fast, quickly killing any potential exploration or initiative to structure this property deeper into the core functionality of iOS. And, really, if you find yourself in the midst of some mad scheme you'd rather keep secret, please, please...

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