Taylor Vanderhelm is a JD candidate at the University of Alberta.
Recently, Apple garnered unwanted attention when it was discovered by security researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden that the iPhone was recording location and time stamp data through its GPS and wireless internet capabilities and then backing up the information, unencrypted, whenever users synced the device with their computers.
It is no secret that the latest evolution of the mobile phone, the aptly named “smart” phone, has unearthed fresh concerns regarding the use and protection of personal information. The technological development of mobile smartphones has rapidly accelerated in recent years, and they have now attained mainstream acceptance with 1 in 2 Americans expected to have one by the end of 2011 (Canadian numbers unavailable). With their newfound capabilities and use as an extremely personal, go-everywhere device, smartphones have the potential to provide insight into an individual’s characteristics, preferences, and life in a way never seen before. Unfortunately, the lack of set rules, expectations, and general knowledge regarding the collection and use of this information has resulted in a murky mess for many consumers looking to understand how their information is being use.
At the forefront of the consumer smartphone market is Apple’s iconic iPhone and a smorgasbord of manufacturers built on Google’s Android platform. While many were outraged at Apple’s collection and storage of location and time stamp data and the apparent disregard for users’ privacy, Apple pointed to their terms and conditions which, near the end of the document, grants them the right to collect anonymized location data. Nonetheless, Apple recently released a software update to reduce the amount of data collected, remove backup files, and delete the data entirely when location services are turned off.
Apple is far from alone in the controversy; Google also collects location data. According to a recent study by Samy Kamkar, an Android powered smartphone will collect data every few seconds and then transmit the data back to Google several times an hour. However, Google claims that the user must first agree to enable location services on their phone before this data collection occurs. Unlike the anonymized iPhone data, the study showed that Google also gathered a unique identifier tied to each individual phone.
Rather than striving to create a big brother scenario, it appears that the motivation for corporations to monitor users’ behaviour is being driven by marketing potential. Google has made it clear that they are actively involved in building a giant database of information, of which location data plays a valuable role. It is no surprise that the data available for collection via smartphone devices represents a potential gold-mine for advertisers. As such, the thirst for smartphone data will only increase as technology becomes more powerful, and will only be tempered if consumers demand control over their information coupled with the law adapting to manage this new reality.
The root of the problem seems to be a lack of transparency throughout the entire process of data collection. Most of the information regarding smartphone data collection has only come to light after being revealed by independent researchers. This means the average user rarely has a clear idea of what data is collected and depends on the media for accurate information. Furthermore, this lack of knowledge equates with a lack of control. While the scarcity of clear rules and regulations are to be expected with any emerging technology, this digital Wild West has created an environment which implicitly encourages the bending of rules and opaque procedures in the lucrative data chase.
If the first quarter of 2011 is any indication, expect this to be a breakout year for issues regarding technology and its widening influence on privacy and personal information matters. In response to the fallout from the iPhone location data revelations, Senator Al Franken (Democrat Representative of Minnesota), Chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, is conducting a hearing on May 10, 2011, on mobile privacy. Additionally, lawsuits have been filed by customers against both Apple and Google regarding the collection of location data. For those interested in more information regarding privacy and technology, The Wall Street Journal’s What They Know blog is an excellent resource. You can also stay up-to-date by following them on twitter @WhatTheyKnow.