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

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

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

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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 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.

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Talkback

50 comments
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  • don't downplay this

    Come on... don't downplay this incident. You do understand the consequences of this careless data collection, right? The police could use this information against you, or anyone else.

    So, don't downplay this please... People should be told when they are being recorded or tracked. Simple as that. Google asks when setting up the account, and they tell you what they will do. Apple should do the same, and also protect that data.
    tatiGmail
    • RE: don't downplay this

      @tatiGmail Yes, this. People aren't nearly as upset that Apple is tracking them as they are that they weren't openly informed of it. Apple decided that burying it in the EULA was the right idea, as though they're ashamed of it.

      Hell, they couldn't even give a straight yes-or-no answer to Congress as to whether or not they were using, or even transmitting, the data. What hope does the average consumer have of getting a better answer from them?
      RvLeshrac
      • Prove it

        @RvLeshrac <br><br>To say that Apple is intentionally tracking anybody is false. The iPhone simply records the location of cel towers and wi-fi hotspots surrounding the phone at any given time. This info is then stored in a local database and is used by the phone to provide location services to apps.<br><br>People posting to this site should be tech savy enough to understand this or at least do some of their own research before mouthing off all kinds of FUD.<br><br><a href="http://bit.ly/e21NVr" target="_blank" rel="nofollow">http://bit.ly/e21NVr</a>
        jaypeg
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @jaypeg

        You do realise that the "location of cel towers and wi-fi hotspots surrounding the phone at any given time" can be used in a process of triangulation to give a pretty darned accurate position for the phone?
        fairportfan
      • EULAs are foolishly overlooked

        @RvLeshrac How can anyone be serious in saying they "buried it" in the EULA? The entire purpose of an EULA is so the "End User" knows what he/she is getting into. People that do not read the EULA and proceed to complain about its contents are just lazy. If you are concerned about what you are getting into, that's what the EULA tells you. It's like complaining about getting radiation from walking around a nuclear reactor storage room because you couldn't be bothered with reading any of the signs on the way in. "Oh noes! I didn't know there was radiation in here! They must've buried it in the sign outside the door I ignored." Arguments like these arise because people are "too busy to be bothered with it". That's just a cop out, plain and simple. The EULA is the document that says: "These are the things you should be aware of by law and out of our good conscience, if we have one"

        Have I read the EULAs on the aforementioned services? No. I am also not surprised nor concerned about their data mining. Their data mining has provided me with a PLETHORA of amazing services, and will continue to do so as long as it is profitable to them. I am perfectly ok with that.

        If it ever arises I come across misfortune because of my ignorance to this, it will be my fault. It will not be the fault of the company that took the time to put it down in a document I was supposed to read. It will be my fault because I was too lazy to read it. The incompetent child approach to companies in general is sad. Just because the public wants to be spoonfed everything without picking up their hands doesn't mean companies have to do so. In fact, it's plain rude to assume they will.
        prince427c
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @fairportfan
        You do realize that it was the government that mandated the use of GPS in phones to begin with, don't you?

        And you don't even have the option to turn GPS off by itself anymore. You have to turn the whole phone off in order to turn GPS off.
        ScorpioBlue
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @prince427c

        <i>The entire purpose of an EULA is so the "End User" knows what he/she is getting into. People that do not read the EULA and proceed to complain about its contents are just lazy.</i>

        A EULA is not designed to inform the customer of anything in any way shape or form. It is designed to protect the company that created it. They are long, dense, and written in precise but deliberately obtuse legalese such that puzzling out the true meaning takes considerably more time and deliberation than reading, say, an equivalent length of a novel.

        Dare I say it, a EULA is DESIGNED NOT TO BE READ. At least by users. That's why they are generally not very enforceable in court.

        Let's say you did take the 12 hours to parse out and fully understand that 27 page EULA. Are you going to do the same thing to the same EULA when they revise a line during an update and you have to re-acknowledge? What about the next time? Exactly how much time do you think the average person has to read EULAs? Do you think the bottom 1/3 of people can even fully understand what a EULA states, even if they had all the time in the world?

        <i>Have I read the EULAs on the aforementioned services? No....If it ever arises I come across misfortune because of my ignorance to this, it will be my fault. It will not be the fault of the company that took the time to put it down in a document I was supposed to read. It will be my fault because I was too lazy to read it. The incompetent child approach to companies in general is sad.</i>

        Your argument seems to boil down to:
        1. People who aren't professional lawyers without a lot of time on their hands are incompetent children
        2. That you too are an incompetent child
        3. That you don't care what happens to you
        4. That other people who aren't lawyers with a lot of free time should not care what happens to them either

        Sounds like a rather self-defeating life philosophy if you ask me.
        SlithyTove
    • Apple asks the same in user agreement; it says exactly which data might be

      @tatiGmail: ... collected and how used.

      However -- this is common problem with Google -- this information is "buried" since UA is quite detailed and no one really reads it.
      DDERSSS
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @denisrs Right, keep telling yourself that and maybe it will make the Bigmean Apple Haters go away!
        slickjim
      • Apple Hater repellent?

        @Peter Perry I've often found that the facts do not make the Apple Haters go away - case in point is your post.
        athynz
      • Again, Google are actually fairly transparent on these features

        @denisrs I guess you didn't read the post you've replied to... Android CLEARY states that location information will be sent to Google even if no relevant apps are running when you have the network location features enabled.

        This information is not buried or hidden at all and is stated at the moment of enabling or re-enabling the feature (which is OFF by default). If that is not transparent enough to avoid being lumped with Apple on this particular complaint, I can't imagine what you would consider acceptable.
        blakjak.au
    • RE: don't downplay this

      @tatiGmail How is this being downplayed? You say the police can use this info against someone - only in Michigan so far... and personally they won't get access to my iPhone without a warrant and probable cause - and a traffic infraction is NOT probable cause.

      I do agree that we should have been informed and that there should be a way to opt out of this... I really want to see an actual verifiable response from Apple on this - a reasonable explanation (supported by FACTS and not anti or pro fanboy rhetoric) as to why this data is collected and what exactly it is used for.
      athynz
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @athynz

        "...a traffic infraction is NOT probable cause"

        Don't bet on it.

        And, even if it isn't - they can find something (like "obstructing an officer in the course his duties", i.e., "a bad attitude") to arrest you for.
        fairportfan
    • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

      @tatiGmail
      Telcos have collected your location data for years every time you pass from one of their cellphone towers to another. EZPass collects your location data everytime you go through a toll. ExxonMobil collects your location data every time you fill up using your key fob. Have you looked at your wireless bill lately? It contains all the detail of every call you make.
      Let's stop the lunacy over this smartphone expose! It's a fire fanned by the press and stoked by politicians who say they are going to protect our privacy -- the same politicians who say they will balance the budget and fix all of our social probelems.
      dlorenzet
      • RE: Google Android, Apple iPhone geolocation tracking flap: Disclosure is everything

        @dlorenzet SUCH A NONSENSE. Apple is a freaking phone manufacturer, not a cell phone provider. The cell-phone providers tell you that they collect this info so that you can check if you actually made the call from Australia to Zambia, same for EZpass, etc. They provide you with a service at those points. Storing for months (years) the location info is something that none of the Apple iPhone holders ever agreed upon.
        pupkin_z
    • consumers have the power

      @tatiGmail <br><br>Absolutely. People like Perlow are why we have allowed ourselves to be stripped of our rights piece by piece.<br><br>Hey Dummy - those services can use geo-location data on-demand, but they don't have to cache and store the data.<br><br>In the case of Apple, that data is stored client-side!! Enter in the enterprise, and now your IT group now owns your every moment.
      man_strosity
    • It is NOT the collection of data ....

      @tatiGmail
      ...it is Apple's BLOCKING you from turning it off without voiding your warrantee that bothers me! None disclosure makes it look sinister!
      kd5auq
  • Live with it, NO

    It clearly DOES matter because you are writing about it.

    "How the heck do you suppose services like Latitude work? "

    Latitude does not use this file, this file is not the enabler of Latitude. Even if you *did* consent for *google* to use it as for Latitude, that is not some sort of group permission for everyone to invade your privacy for every reason.

    "With magic fairy dust, perhaps?"
    So let me get this straight there is magic fairy dust and there is other, and if it's not magic fairy dust it is other?

    I could rephrase that for you: "How do you think Amazon works? With magic fairy dust? They NEED your credit card too, so what if hackers have your credit card number, DEAL WITH IT!"

    Once again, they have no technical purpose in recording that data, they should not be doing it. Be clear that fanbois will defend Apple no matter what, but the more we talk about this, the more people will make their choices and those choices won't be Apple.
    guihombre
  • Spot on

    As the Romans would say: rem acu tetigisti. I sincerely hope that our legislators will do something about this. Quickly.

    It appears that the European Union is generally more aware in this respect than the United States, but even the EU still has a lot of work to do.
    pjotr123
  • yes yes and yes

    Disclosure is key but also as you rightly pointed out "User Friendly Full Disclosure" is need but this has to be set in stone by goverments (lobby free).<br>this type of thing only goes to show the power of these big companies i am all for global economies but also for global freedoms and rights for the people.<br>But having said all that how many people still have not sorted out the their facebook security settings! you cannot legislate against stupidity but legisation is there to protect people from hurting themselves, that cannot help themselves.
    ukdaveg