Debate Forum Topic: 5/3/11

Google and Apple Caught Secretly Tracking Whereabouts of Phone Users

By Steve Breen

Last week’s revelations about how Apple iPhones and Google Android phones keep precise track of their users’ whereabouts is sending shock waves through the tech and privacy communities. Cellular phones using the Google Android Operating System and a similar system in Apple iPhones are secretly recording and storing comprehensive details of all their owners’ movements. According to security experts, the extensive location data is hidden from users but is unencrypted, making it easy for Google, Apple or third parties to later access.
Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., has now called for a formal congressional investigation of both Apple and Google. “Unprotected personal location information could be a treasure trove for troublemakers,” stated Markey.
Two British researchers brought the issue to light when they revealed their discovery of a location-logging mechanism quietly introduced by Apple for iPhones and iPads in early- to mid-2010.  Similarly, a discovery made by a Swiss researcher shows how most Android phones worldwide have been actively sending GPS location coordinates, as well as the coordinates of any nearby WiFi networks, back to Google for at least the past six months.
Both Apple and Google want desperately to dominate one of tech’s hottest new sectors: services pivoting around knowing the precise location of the consumer. According to Gartner, a tech industry research firrm, revenues derived from so-called location-based services are expected to swell to $8.3 billion by 2014, up from $2.6 billion in 2010. Location data is being increasingly used to personalize online ads, to help parents keep track of their teens and to help prevent mobile payment scams. It remains unclear whether Apple and Google intended to sell to or otherwise make this data available to location-based marketers.
Prior to this disclosure, the users of Apple iPhones and the Google Android Operating System were unaware of the extensive tracking of their locations and have not knowingly consented to such tracking. Within days of the revelations, class action lawsuits were filed against each company alleging invasion of privacy.
Apple has answered its critics by explaining that the purpose of the tracking was for better service and efficiency. The iPhones were keeping a record of the cell towers and Wi-Fi access points that each phone had previously detected to calculate the geolocation more quickly the next time the user was in the same place.
Apple has announced the following steps that it will take to address the risk the system poses to the privacy of its users: it will dramatically shorten the time period covered by the location data stored on your phone to seven days; it will stop making backup copies of the files on your computer; it will enable users to delete the files by turning off “Location Services”; Apple will also encrypt the location files on the phones to make it harder for others to access.

Forum Question:

Did Apple and Google violate the privacy of their respective cell phone users by not disclosing to them that their smart phones were tracking and storing information about their whereabouts?

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