Debate Forum Right: 5/3/11

What Do You Mean Steve Jobs Knows Where I’ve Been?

by David H. Landon

David H. Landon

In the past week we have witnessed the uproar over the discovery by a couple of British computer scientists (geeks is also acceptable) that if your wife or husband could get their hands on your Apple iPhone or Google Android cell phone, they could know your every movement over the last year. These modern technological marvels of communication upon which we have become so dependent have been secretly recording and storing comprehensive details of all their owners’ movements. We were all shocked to learn that our trusty cell phone had the ability to “rat us out.”
I can see the scene clearly in my head. The unsuspecting husband comes to the breakfast table and the wife is standing there with his phone in hand. “Didn’t you tell me that you came straight home last night and didn’t stop to have a drink with the boys at the Dublin Pub?” “Yes honey, like I told you, I came straight home last night,” he says, now starting to get a little worried. “That’s interesting dear, because according to the embedded tracking device in your smart phone, your cell phone somehow found its way to the Dublin Pub last night!” “Really,” says the now panicked husband, “I think my cell phone must have wanted a Guinness!”
You can easily see the possible pitfalls from the tracking capabilities of this device. There is an expectation of privacy of personal movement that can now be violated by our smart phone’s tracking device. The Forum debate question of the week is whether or not Google and Apple have violated the privacy rights of the users of these smart phones by not expressly stating that their phones had an embedded tracking device that might be accessible to others. I believe they have clearly intruded upon our privacy. What I am trying to determine is just how egregious that violation might be.
I could not be considered a “techie” by any stretch of the imagination. If, somehow, our civilization was wiped out and I was one of the last people alive, the other survivors would not want to assign the task of recreating our wireless communication system to me. I really have very little idea of how the darn things work. Which makes my writing today’s column somewhat problematic.
My basic understanding is my Android cell phone has been sending my GPS location coordinates, as well as the coordinates of any nearby WiFi networks, back to Google since I first turned on my cell phone. Somehow that information is also stored both in my phone and can be synchronized with my home computer where it can also be stored. It seems like information of which I, as well as all of the other customers for Apple and Google, should have been made aware. At the same time, I appreciate the wizardry of how quickly my phone finds a signal and how few times I drop a call, partly due to the fact that my phone has this embedded memory.
According to tech industry research firms, there is a billion dollar industry developing around knowing the precise location of the consumer. Based on the information that has come out so far, I’m not certain Google and Apple intended to sell the information that was being secretly sent to them by unsuspecting cell phone users. Knowing the travel habits of the user would dictate what ads could be sent to his or her internet provider. Precise marketing of a product or service is a very valuable retail tool for advertisers. It can be very annoying to consumers, but is a relatively harmless marketing device. But this same information in the wrong hands could create momentous problems.
Cell phones are not the only consumer device to come under scrutiny by those concerned over issues of privacy. Since last year, retailers have sold more than 450,000 Nike+iPod Sport Kits, according to industry publication Apple Insider. The $29 item consists of two parts. One piece is a chip the size of a quarter that acts as a pedometer. This item is slipped into a runner’s shoe. The other part of the device is a receiver that fits into an iPod Nano and stores information transmitted from the person’s foot. After a workout, this device allows the high-tech runner to upload the data and use a Nike software program to track their distance, speed and calories burned.
This is great technology for serious runners, but it could also be used as a tracking device. It is an example of how new gadgetry can possibly be used to invade our personal privacy. For example, a thief could track when people enter or leave their homes. A control freak or spouse could track their partner’s movements. A stalker could hide receivers near a home, gym or workplace, to closely monitor his or her target’s movements.
We are living in an age where technological advancements seem to have potential unintended consequences that affect our personal privacy. Perhaps I am being too generous in assigning motive. Maybe they are intentional consequences and are all driven by potential monetary gains.
I am not happy to hear that anyone can find out where I have been since I purchased my smart phone. It would be embarrassing to have revealed how pedestrian my lifestyle has become! But I will not be joining the class action suit recently filed against Google to seek compensation for the invasion of my privacy. Instead I want them to fix this problem while maintaining the speed and efficiency with which these phones currently operate. These are very smart guys … I’m sure they will figure it out.

David H. Landon is the former Chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party Central Committee. He can be reached at DaveLandon@daytoncitypaper.com

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