Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

Summary:Yes, Apple and Google are recording your geolocation data. So what comes next?

Yes, Apple and Google are recording your geolocation data. So what comes next?

Ohmygod. Ohmygod. Ohmygod. My phone is capturing all sorts of information about my personal whereabouts! MY PRIVACY IS BEING VIOLATED!!!! Apple and Google are doing evil things with my personal data! Aaaaaaaaagggggh! I'm gonna run around and scream like a banshee until my head explodes!

Seriously, this is news?

I mean, come on. You're all so surprised that your iOS device, with all of its cool geolocation-based, "There's an App for That" stuff that you see on all the commercials actually caches GPS and cell tower data in order to make all of that junk work? Or that, heaven forbid, that Google does similar sorts of things, which integrates geolocation services as a base feature of Android and Google Maps?

How the heck do you suppose services like Latitude work? With magic fairy dust, perhaps?

Look, your phones and tablets collect geolocation data. They also get uploaded to the mothership. Live with it. Get on with your lives. But should you be concerned that an awful lot of historical geolation information is either cached on your phone or is uploaded to Google or Apple on a periodic basis in order to enhance the accuracy and usefulness of their services?

Maybe.

I think the greater issue is not "Oh my God, let's string Apple and Google up for caching/polling my geolocation information" but rather, "How can I as an informed consumer and user of devices which have integrated gelocation services understand precisely what is being collected from my device, and can I have any control over it?"

We're living in an age where a lot of personal information about our lives are being collected. Be it on Facebook, on Twitter or at wireless carriers and Internet Service Providers, data is being collected on us from every single device and from every electronic service we use.

None of this should be news to anyone. The bigger issue is knowing exactly what is being collected, how it is being used, and that's where we as consumers and end-users need to be in the loop.

It's all about the disclosure, period.

Should there be laws that require companies like Apple and Google to disclose and be transparent about what sort of personal data, be it geolocation or any other sort of telemetry from their devices is being collected for their own use or shared in an API? Absolutely.

But I think this applies to every sort of electronic service, not just the software that runs on our cellphones or tablets.

We're already seeing some (albeit weak) legislation in the form of the Net Neutrality laws through the FCC Open Internet Order which state that Internet Service Providers/Telecommunications Carriers "must be transparent in their network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services."

These are exactly same the sort of things regarding data collection that we need to see not just from Apple and Google, but companies like FaceBook, Twitter and every single Web 2.0 service and app that touches your computer and/or smart device.

To be entirely fair to FaceBook, the company has published the specifications for its Graph API that documents every type of data object imaginable that can be retrieved by a developer on their platform. Google has published similar types of APIs in regards to their geolocation services. Twitter also has published APIs as well.

Still, a regular end-user of these services on their computers and smart devices need to be able to have the option of turning on and off collection and sharing of different types of data elements without having to understand database schemas, write code in Dalvik to "frob" the API's or write Objective-C or C++ hackerish-type stuff to attempt to do the same thing.

As far as Google is concerned, the company publishes its Dashboard to allow users to log in using a web browser and manage the majority of their datapoints, but it's not available as an App on their Android phones, and most users are completely unaware of it.

To Google's credit it should be noted that GPS location history for Latitude is disabled by default, so that it only uses location for that specific service on the fly, but the Dashboard for Latitude is considered to be "beta" by the company.

This is very simple. Apple and Google (and anyone else collecting similar types of personally identifying information, be it geolocation data or whatever else) needs to provide not only a list of datapoints that their devices collect from their end-users and or share to partners, but they also need to provide an easy way for end-users to visualize that data and also to opt-out of specific data elements on a granular level, be it using an App or a web site.

This cannot be that hard for these companies to do. And if they're too lazy or lack the motivation to give this functionality in their devices and sites to us, then maybe we should make our legislative bodies force them into doing it.

Should there be laws enacted to require companies like Apple and Google to provide methods for end-users to easily determine what geolocation and personally identifying information is being collected from their device and site usage? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

Topics: Smartphones, Android, Apple, Google, Hardware, iPhone, Mobile OS, Mobility

About

Jason Perlow, Sr. Technology Editor at ZDNet is a technologist with over two decades of experience with integrating large heterogeneous multi-vendor computing environments in Fortune 500 companies. Jason is currently a Partner Technology Strategist with Microsoft Corp. His expressed views do not necessarily represent those of his employer... Full Bio

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