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BLOG: Shock: iPhones store location data (Gimme a break...)

Mike Elgan | April 24, 2011
Worried about LocationGate? I'll give you something to worry about

Location data retention sounds like a medical condition. In a way, it is. And your phone's probably got it.

We heard about a new scandal this week. iPhones, we discovered, keep a record of every place you've been, or, at least, every place your phone's been. That data is stored in a file on your phone, unencrypted. Shock!

The data could be subpoenaed in a divorce case. PCs and phones could be hacked, and the could be data exposed. The horror!

Congress is outraged: Comedian-turned-grandstanding-senator Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) have demanded that Steve Jobs explain himself. And Germany, a country whose national pastime has become the harassment of Silicon Valley companies that may be violating German privacy laws, wants clarification as well.

The self-appointed guardians of privacy are breaking out the pitchforks and torches. The news media have been alerted. TV talking heads are aghast.

Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reported that Android phones not only capture location data, but also beam it back to Google every few minutes, along with the phones' unique identifiers and the location of nearby Wi-Fi hot spots. (Google erases the start and end locations for all "trips.")

The Drudge Report linked to the Journal story with this headline: "FOLLOWING YOU: APPLE, GOOGLE PHONES COLLECT DATA." You know it's serious if they use all caps.

The whole affair is a non-issue as far as I'm concerned, and for two reasons. First, we already knew all about it. And second, there are far more serious violations of privacy going on every day that few seem all that concerned about.

Old news

One of the most delicious ironies in all this is that Markey demanded -- and received -- an explanation about Apple's location collection policy in July. In response to that request, Apple offered a detailed explanation in a letter to Markey, and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas).

Markey could just read the letter he has on file. But his demand looks a lot like political grandstanding and not much like fact-finding.

A few bloggers were talking about this last year, but nobody cared. It's something of a mystery why this has suddenly become an issue.

The least of our location data worries

The biggest reason LocationGate is a non-issue is that it's far less of a privacy concern than other aspects of owning and using a smartphone.

Let's be clear about what's going on here. The scandal around the iPhone's user-tracking capability is that "you" should be the only one in possession of your own location data. Fears center around the "potential" for evil-doers to get their greasy mitts on that data -- something that has not actually happened, as far as I know.


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