Tracked By Your Smartphone

This week Apple has been on the hot seat because of tracking data stored on users’ iPhones. Data for a year would be stored on individual phones that synced to PCs (and back to Apple). Google does the same thing. Apple has officially come out with an apology/explanation and said it will right the wrong. But the real question is, is this as bad as it seems?

The corporate line is that this tracking data is stored in order to provide quicker geo-location support for apps that use the technology. Essentially, traditional GPS is too slow, so the phone relies on cell towers and wi-fi hotspots to triangulate location. Fine enough. But the problem for most seems to be the year-long record of all location data. And that someone else could conceivably see it. Gasp! I’m not saying that privacy is a trivial matter. It’s not. But let’s face it – as a society we long ago gave up the right to complete privacy the second we started plugging into the network. Cell phones have always been able to track location. Facebook and Twitter are integrating it into their platform. Hell, Foursquare is built on location.

Now the question seems to be, where do we draw the line? Are we ok if a company has our data, but only for a short time (i.e. a week vs. a year)? Or are we ok as long as we never hear about it (like if nobody ever found that iPhone file)? Or will this be the catalyst for new laws to govern the use and retention of location data?

I have a hard time believing location data will continue along unchecked by some sort of regulation, but I also don’t see it needing to be guarded along HIPAA lines. My guess is the resolution will be not very far from what Apple has voluntarily done. Some sort of regulation stipulating the length of time location data can be kept, what it can be used for, and only that de-identified data can be used.

The other big question is will this result in any consumer backlash to smartphone and other technology? The answer to that is a resounding no. Unfortunately, we want to have our cake and eat it too. We want all the benefits that location data enables, but we don’t want anyone to be able to access that data. Don’t expect a slowdown of smartphone adoption, or Facebook use, or anything else. That’s all here to stay, which is why I think we’ll ultimately get some legislation around how this data can be used. That’s why Senators Kerry and McCain have proposed an online privacy bill.

Overall I think this will turn out to be productive. May it be more restrictive for companies? Sure. Will it help engender consumer confidence? Perhaps. Ultimately this will benefit both sides and we’ll actually see more legitimate and useful uses of location-based and other data.