Big Apple, Big Google, Big Brother

It looks more and more like all mobile systems collect location data about you. This, in turn, has the potential both for great rewards and great abuse.

In some ways, all the uproar about Apple saving location data on its iOS device users is old news. Guess what? Big Brother, or Big Google, also collects geo-location information from its mobile, Android-powered devices. It’s like anything else in computing: geo-location can provide great services and resources, but it can also be abused.

Take, for example, a woman who was recently robbed in Texas. Using her stolen iPhone, police officers were able to quickly find not only her stolen phone, but her wedding ring as well. Yea!

On the other hand, say another woman is in an abusive relationship and goes to a friend’s house or to a “safe-house” shelter. Her husband tracks her down using her smartphone and literally drags her back “home.”

That last case isn’t fiction. My friend Angela, a Certified Information Privacy Professional (CIPP) tells me, “I teach tech-safety courses for domestic-violence survivors. This scenario has a probability of 1. In the two years I've been teaching, we've had multiple instances of abusers using hidden GPS-Bluetooth phone combinations to track vehicles, which sort of totally sucks when the vehicle is now parked at a ‘secret’ women's shelter.”

“Worse, the use of phone ‘family’ plans and fancy smartphones are among the most difficult issues we face in the teaching process,” Angela said. “Most of the women we see are in desperate financial straits; often there's no money for any sort of mobile plan (and we'll leave aside the whole getting-an-account-set-up-under-those-circumstances thing), let alone for a decent phone. Realistically, they know they have to dump the gadget and the plan and so forth, but practically? With so much else happening? Argh.”

How about wanting the local cops to know where you’ve been for the last two weeks? Police already have the technology to grab GPS location data from smartphones including latitude, longitude, altitude and time data. They don’t need sophisticated forensics equipment. In Michigan, cops can do it in a roadside traffic stop in a few minutes.

The cops or the jealous ex don’t even need to get their hands on your smartphone or tablet. Both Apple and Google regularly pull down your location data. Apple, it seems, does it twice a day, while Google updates your location several times an hour.

Why do they need continual access to this information? Beats me. Advertising is what comes first to mind, but do they really need to know where I am around the clock to make sure I get local ads? It strikes me as overkill.

And here’s the part that really worries me. What stops someone from snatching that location data out of the air over the Wi-Fi or 3G/4G network? Do we want a government, say Syria, using this information to track down protesters seen at a recent demonstration? Might Syria’s dictatorship be doing just that with its recent pinpoint kidnapping of activists?

I know there are people who don’t consider it a big deal that Big Companies potentially knows their every move.. I do. There’s a huge difference between information that you opt to give a company when you buy their product or click on a Web ad, and information that flows to them whenever your device is turned on.

Sure, you can opt out by refusing to grant any geo-location app permission to run, but that’s not a viable answer. That’s throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The real answer, the better answer, is for Apple and Google to keep only a brief log of where you’ve been, and to stop transmitting this data to the home office. The applications don’t need this comprehensive information; the companies don’t need it, even if they want it; and the potential harm that can result from using the information far outweighs the benefits. Do the right thing, Apple and Google: Get out of the Big Brother business.

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