There’s been a recent storm of protest regarding the revelation that Apple’s iOS devices (iPhones and iPads) store the location of accessed mobile phone towers and GPS signals for a twelve month period on the devices themselves, and then, when synchronised back to your PC, store them as part of the backup. The issue here is twofold; firstly, that the data collection’s been done with little notification to the end users. Secondly, that it’s trivially easy to use the synchronising computer to read all of this information; in short where you’ve been with your device over the last year.
The first point is largely one of interpretation; Apple maintains that there’s mention of location services in the lengthy end user licence agreement (EULA) that you click through whenever iTunes needs an update or you buy a new iOS device. You know the one; the one that virtually nobody stops and reads because it comprises dozens of pages of near incomprehensible legalese anyway? In any case, switching off location services isn’t quite enough; an iPhone or iPad will still get a rough read from nearby mobile phone towers if you’re using 3G data anyway.
The second one is something that is becoming all too common, and it’s something that many of us give away for free in any case. Apple’s lack of security regarding the database on your host PC is a worry all of its own, but plenty of other companies make money — and some make their entire income — from the kinds of personal information that devices and services ask us to reveal. If you’ve used FourSquare, or have a Facebook account, or use certain Google services, there’s an immense amount of data tracking going on. Facebook’s particularly notable, as its defaults for many services, including the “places” facility that indicates exactly where you are at a given point in time are to allow all sorts of data display and data mining, all in the name of delivering advertising to you. Google, likewise, does collect data from Android smartphone devices, but states it does so anonymously. Still, again, Google likes having data on preferences, and again it’s to do with delivering advertising.. for now.
Quite how this kind of thing hits you will obviously depend on your own personal preferences as well. Highly extroverted types may enjoy broadcasting every little detail of their lives, whether it’s location details via FourSquare or personal thoughts via Twitter, while those of a more introverted nature, or those with either a reason to stay somewhat incognito (for better or worse reasons, whatever they may be) will be naturally wary of any kind of data collection.
So what’s the solution? There isn’t a simple way these days to fall off the radar of everybody all the time (and only the most introverted would want to), but it’s certainly worth thinking about how you use online services, not to mention mobile broadband services, and what that data usage says about you. If you’re uncomfortable with that data being available to others — not necessarily broadcast public, but undeniably recorded — then careful consideration of your technology usage would seem wise.