Your Phone, Yourself: When is tracking too much?

Apr 24, 2011 By JORDAN ROBERTSON , AP Technology Writer
In this April 22, 2011 photo, University of Iowa sophomore Autumn Bradfish, 20, of Lake Zurich, Ill., poses for a picture at the Iowa Memorial Union in Iowa City, Iowa. Bradfish said she had heard little about the reports of her location being collected on her iPhone and she said she was not particularly concerned about the practice. "If they use it just for ads, I don't see that as a problem. Facebook does that. If I'm going to have ads thrown at me, they might as well be relevant to my location." (AP Photo/Ryan J. Foley)

(AP) -- If you're worried about privacy, you can turn off the function on your smartphone that tracks where you go. But that means giving up the services that probably made you want a smartphone in the first place. After all, how smart is an iPhone or an Android if you can't use it to map your car trip or scan reviews of nearby restaurants?

The debate over digital privacy flamed higher this week with news that Apple Inc.'s popular iPhones and iPads store users' GPS coordinates for a year or more. Phones that run Google Inc.'s Android software also store users' . And not only is the data stored - allowing anyone who can get their hands on the device to piece together a chillingly accurate profile of where you've been - but it's also transmitted back to the companies to use for their own research.

Now, cellphone service providers have had customers' location data for almost as long as there have been cellphones. That's how they make sure to route calls and to the right place. Law enforcement analyzes location data on iPhones for criminal evidence - a practice that Alex Levinson, technical lead for firm Katana Forensics, said has helped lead to convictions. And both Apple and Google have said that the location data that they collect from the phones is anonymous and not able to be tied back to specific users.

But lawmakers and many users say storing the data creates an opportunity for one's private information to be misused. Levinson, who raised the iPhone tracking issue last year, agrees that people should start thinking about location data as just as valuable and worth protecting as a wallet or bank account number.

"We don't know what they're going to do with that information," said Dawn Anderson, a creative director and Web developer in Glen Mills, Pa., who turned off the GPS feature on her Android-based phone even before the latest debate about location data. She said she doesn't miss any of the location-based services in the phone. She uses the GPS unit in her car instead.

"With any technology, there are security risks and breaches," she added. "How do we know that it can't be compromised in some way and used for criminal things?"

Privacy watchdogs note that location data opens a big window into very private details of a person's life, including the doctors they see, the friends they have and the places where they like to spend their time. Besides hackers, databases filled with such information could become inviting targets for stalkers, even divorce lawyers.

Do you sync your iPhone to your computer? Well, all it would take to find out where you've been is simple, free software that pulls information from the computer. Voila! Your comings and goings, clandestine or otherwise, helpfully pinpointed on a map.

One could make the case that privacy isn't all that prized these days. People knowingly trade it away each day, checking in to restaurants and stores via social media sites like Foursquare, uploading party photos to Facebook to be seen by friends of friends of friends, and freely tweeting the minutiae of their lives on Twitter.

More than 500 million people have shared their personal information with Facebook to connect with friends on the social networking service. Billions of people search Google and Yahoo each month, accepting their tracking "cookies" in exchange for access to the world's digital information. And with about 5 billion people now using cellphones, a person's location has become just another data point to be used for marketing, the same way that advertisers now use records of Web searches to show you online ads tailored to your interest in the Red Sox, or dancing, or certain stores.

Autumn Bradfish, a sophomore at the University of Iowa, said she doesn't see a problem with phone companies using her location to produce targeted ads, as long as they deliver relevant offers to her. She said she would not disable the tracking feature on her iPhone because she enjoys using a mapping app that helps her find new restaurants.

"I'm terrible with maps," she said.

The very fact that your location is a moving target makes it that much more alluring for advertisers. Every new place you go represents a new selling opportunity. In that sense, smartphone technology is the ultimate matchmaker for marketers looking to assemble profiles on prospective customers.

That profiling is what makes some users uneasy.

At a technology conference in San Francisco this past week, security researchers disclosed that iPhones and iPads keep a small file of location data on their users. That file - which is not encrypted and thus vulnerable to hacking - is transferred when you sync your phone to your computer to back up information. Security firm F-Secure Corp. said the iPhone sends users' location data to Apple twice a day to improve its database of known Wi-Fi networks.

The data that is available goes back to last year's launch of Apple's new iOS 4 operating software. Researchers say the tracking was going on before that, though the file was in a different format and wasn't easy to find until the new system came out. In June, Apple added a section to its privacy policy to note that it would collect some real-time location data from iPhone users in order to improve its features.

While Apple has been silent about the latest findings, it has noted that its practice is clearly spelled out in user agreements. Other phone makers say the same. acknowledged this past week that it does store some location data directly on phones for a short time from users who have chosen to use GPS services, "in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices." It too stressed that any location sharing on is done with the user's permission.

But consumer advocates warn that too many people click right through privacy notifications and breeze over or ignore such legalese. Case in point -some users who found about this past week about the data storage say they didn't know anything about Apple's tracking.

"It's like being stalked by a secret organization. Outrageous!" said Jill Kuraitis, 54, a freelance journalist in Boise, Idaho. "To be actively tracking millions of people without notification? It's beyond unacceptable."

It's easy to tell smartphone users that turning off tracking is as easy as finding their way to the settings menu. But to opt out of GPS service means preventing the software on your phone from using any information about where you are. That means cutting yourself off from the vast array of mobile apps that offer discounts and ads, allow you to connect more easily with friends who use social media, and simplify your life with map directions. Not a great trade-off.

And if you thought there were laws that curbed tracking, think again.

The government prohibits telephone companies from sharing customer data, including location information, with outside parties without first getting the customer's consent. But those rules don't apply to Apple and other phone makers. Nor do they apply to the new ecosystem of mobile services offered through those apps made by third-party developers.

What's more, because those rules were written for old-fashioned telephone service, it's unclear whether they apply to mobile broadband service at all - even for wireless carriers that are also traditional phone companies, like AT&T Inc. and Verizon.

Both the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission have said they are looking into the issue. But for now, it's up to smartphone users to decide: Is it privacy they are most concerned about, or convenience?

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Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
you can turn off the function ... that tracks where you go
How, and how does one prove it to oneself? Trust in Apple/G00gle is gone. Tell me all the 'Easter Eggs' in the iOS.
dogbert
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
This article misses an important point. According to reports, Apple is recording your location even when you have GPS off through interpolation of cell phone tower information. This is significantly different from other smart phones which do not track you when GPS is off.

I have always kept GPS off on my phone (Palm WebOS) and only turn it on when needed for an application to operate. The phone requests that I allow GPS, then turns it off again when the app is finished. I always make a choice when I use GPS.

With the iPhone, there is no choice and people who chose to turn off GPS have been tracked without their knowledge or permission.

According to this article, Apple collects your location data twice per day over the air -- another security concern.
Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
Any Easter Eggs in WebOS, ie, do you trust it?
dogbert
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
Any Easter Eggs in WebOS, ie, do you trust it?


I would not say I am willing to trust any company explicitly, but I have found Palm to be generally up front. However, Palm has been sold to HP and HP has not been so trustworthy.

Having said that, the WebOS development community has looked at the OS closely. I think that if any secret files existed, they would have been found long ago.

WebOS also makes it easy to keep GPS off by having the OS prompt to turn it on as needed and turn it off when the app is finished with it. If there were some hidden tracking going on, I suspect that there would be no easy way to keep GPS off.
Skeptic_Heretic
3 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2011
Tracking is too much when you're unable to opt out of your own accord or left unaware that the tracking is being done.

That being said, living off the grid is only necessary if you have something to hide.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
WebOS also makes it easy to keep GPS off by having the OS prompt to turn it on as needed and turn it off when the app is finished with it.
Cell tower antennae are unidirectional, routers have standardized location codes. You can still be tracked as long as the phone or device is on a network.
dogbert
5 / 5 (2) Apr 24, 2011
That being said, living off the grid is only necessary if you have something to hide.


I suspect that you do not want thieves to know your activities so that they can enter your house and steal while you are away? Do you have a desire to hide such information from thieves?

Cell tower antennae are unidirectional, routers have standardized location codes. You can still be tracked as long as the phone or device is on a network.


Yes. This is well known and the information is only obtainable by court order. The carriers have to be able to have such information from their towers in order to provide service. Keeping information on your phone is not necessary to provide service.
Skeptic_Heretic
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
I suspect that you do not want thieves to know your activities so that they can enter your house and steal while you are away? Do you have a desire to hide such information from thieves?
If my front door is on the grid, I know when an unauthorized entry has been made and the police can respond post haste. If the thieves get away, they can be tracked if they left evidence behind. If they didn't, I have the ability to prove my claims to the insurance company and be reimbursed with little paperwork hassle.
Yes. This is well known and the information is only obtainable by court order.
Until the PATRIOT act was passed.
The carriers have to be able to have such information from their towers in order to provide service.
That's not accurate.
Keeping information on your phone is not necessary to provide service.
Some services that come direct from your phone, like navigation, require your location information.
dogbert
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
Keeping information on your phone is not necessary to provide service.


Some services that come direct from your phone, like navigation, require your location information.


Navigation services and other services my require a knowledge of location, but there is no requirement to store a record of past locations in order to provide navigation or other services which require a knowledge of current location.
Skeptic_Heretic
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
Navigation services and other services my require a knowledge of location, but there is no requirement to store a record of past locations in order to provide navigation or other services which require a knowledge of current location.
Completely agreed.
Silver_the_Fox
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
Any Easter Eggs in WebOS, ie, do you trust it?


I would not say I am willing to trust any company explicitly, but I have found Palm to be generally up front. However, Palm has been sold to HP and HP has not been so trustworthy.

Having said that, the WebOS development community has looked at the OS closely. I think that if any secret files existed, they would have been found long ago.

WebOS also makes it easy to keep GPS off by having the OS prompt to turn it on as needed and turn it off when the app is finished with it. If there were some hidden tracking going on, I suspect that there would be no easy way to keep GPS off.

I'm sorry for this, but it sounds alot like you are trying to advertise for something, you discussion and debate with Skeptic Heretic has been noted, read throughly, and overall enjoyed, but the fact remains that it sounds like you are advertising for the Palm WebOS. But I heavily digress.
Silver_the_Fox
5 / 5 (1) Apr 24, 2011
The Iphones tracking as well as its inabiilty or unwillingness to encrypt the data is either ignorance insulting, possibly both.

I am aware of the article's statement of Apple encrypting their data in the past, and I bear that in mind as I type this. And now that I've stated the side opposite me, i shall now state my own side.

If thieves as you have said earlier had access to this data, they would first have to have access to the computer it was downloaded to or to the homegroup the computer is on. thus the threat of a thief or group of thieves is neligible. Plus, who would go through all of that effort to steal from you in the first place, if what you own is so valuable, you security should be up to snuff, or brought there.

Just saying...
dogbert
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
I'm sorry for this, but it sounds alot like you are trying to advertise for something...


No, I just noted that it is a simple matter to leave GPS off and still use it as needed on WebOS. Then I was asked if I trusted WebOS and I answered that question.

I don't know if WebOS has a position history.
Silver_the_Fox
not rated yet Apr 25, 2011
Hmm, well thank you for clarifying. And I not sure if it does either... Worth looking up at the very least.
J-n
4.3 / 5 (3) Apr 25, 2011
WebOS, to my limited knowledge, is not open source, so is subject to the same back office, underhanded, spying tatics that are seemingly employed by Apple.

Those who are willing to trade liberty/privacy/freedom for security deserve neither.

Imagine your daughter/sister/etc is at the gym. A guy decides to break into her locker and steal her phone, now will be able to find her home address, what coffee shops she frequents, where she gets her hair done, what gas stations she usually stops at. This would give them plenty of information to plan an abduction and provide enough time to make sure that she isn't missed while he is doing whatever it is he wanted to do. I'm also sure that the 'bad guys' will find a way around this tracking or will just leave their phones at home while they are doing their 'bad guy' stuff.

This will not protect anyone except the bottom line of companies who sell this information to people who want to sell you stuff.
Silver_the_Fox
1 / 5 (1) Apr 25, 2011
Someone is overly pessimistic, but you have a good point. IF someone were to go through all that effort to kidnap someone for nefarious purposes, and IF they were that desperate for something like that, then your idea would be well founded. Yes it is a possibility, and yes, it does happen, but if you live in constant fear, you won't be able to do anything for the rest of your life.

What good thing on earth is done without a little risk?

Any questions?
Silver out.