Locational privacy: it's important

26 Apr 2011

There’s been plenty of blogging about last week’s media frenzy in the US over new research that found that iPhones and Android phones store lots of personal data about your movements and some apps even send that data back to Apple and Google in the name of building databases for location-based services and ads – and that some of this data is unencrypted.

The general news media is running the usual frightening stories (“OMG your cellphone is telling people everywhere you go!”), and politicians are predictably outraged and demanding explanations from Apple and Google.

Tony Poulos and Computerworld’s Mike Elgan have already covered much of what I’d be writing here anyway: namely, much of this is old news, and the real problem isn’t location tracking, but security and privacy.

What I’d add is that we’re talking specifically about locational privacy.

If you’re not familiar with the concept of locational privacy, I recommend reading this essay from the Electronic Frontier Foundation. I’ve linked to it before, but it’s worth posting again because privacy is the real issue that drives scare stories like the ones mentioned above and therefore an issue that everyone in the mobile value chain needs to take seriously – especially as smartphones and apps become more prevalent, and as we start confronting actual real-world dilemmas such as, say, whether the police have the right to search someone’s cell phone and download all data from it during a routine traffic stop, with or without a search warrant.

The good news, of course, is that the latest revelations are very unlikely to hurt (or even slow down) smartphone sales or apps download rates. The bad news is that some players in the mobile value chain may conclude from this that they have less incentive to take this sort of thing seriously – at least until local regulators step in, or until market forces shift so that a cellco, device maker or content provider’s security/privacy reputation becomes a key factor in sales, downloads and churn rates.

EDITED TO ADD [26 April 2011]: Steve Jobs reportedly responds (via MacRumors):

We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false.

Well, that clears everything up, then.

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