The news broke last week in the tech press and quickly went mainstream. Essentially, iPhones store users' location data into a file that is stored both on the phone and on any computer the device is synced to -- information the Apple did not share with the public. The data goes back a year, when the iOS 4 software was released. Android devices do the same, but store the information for a shorter period of time.
Cue the exploding heads.
Locationgate, as it's been dubbed, isn't the first time phone location has become an issue. This seems to happen ever few years once the press remembers that mobile phones can track users location based on the device checking into various access points. Remember when news reports started popping up about passing by a Starbucks and getting an ad texted to your phone? (I remember seeing one TV report leading with the scenario of being unable to make a 911 emergency call because the phone could be tied up with location-specific ads). Never mind that such a service never emerged, the outrage was and is there.
This new round of panic comes at an inopportune time. Some of the more exciting music apps being created for smartphones today rely on location technology as a key part of their customization experience. SoundTracking, which lets users share with friends where they are and what they're listening to, was our inaugural App of the Month last month. Others using location in exciting ways include SuperGlued, Roqbot, Soundtrkr, Loudie, and many more.
Just today, word broke that location-based photo sharing app Color is being used by a music festival for a sort of photo-based scavenger hunt game. Those attending the festival can participate, and those not attending can view the photos vicariously.
Location data is an exciting tool for app developers. It's a must-have feature for smartphone apps and is perhaps the best and most useful method of delivering personalized information. The fact is, the more personalized or customized you want an app to be, the more about yourself you'll need to provide.
But the minute you talk about "tracking" users, privacy advocates start up the panic machine, often without solid reasoning. For starters, location apps don't even really track your exact location. It's cell tower and WiFi router point zones. That might tell you what neighborhood I live in, but not my house.
Secondly, the data is anonymous. There's a big difference between saying "an iPhone user was at location X" versus "Joe Smith was at location X." It's aggregated info that can be used in very productive ways only by the user from which the location is being provided.
Now, if someone steals your phone or hacks into your account, yes, they can get personalized location info about you -- just like they can get financial information if they hack your bank or credit card account. Shutting off the location features of your phone as a precaution against such an unlikely scenario makes about as much sense as storing your money under your bed.
And quite frankly, there's far more damaging information that can be accessed by someone hacking into your iPhone: account login information, email accounts and contacts, and so on.
Finally, many seem to think the issue is about Apple's failure to tell users about its location tracking processes. For starters, any app that requires location data has to get users permission to access. Second, Apple answered questions about its location-collection and storing policies last year. True, the company didn't outline how long it saved the data and what steps users should take to protect it, so that may be a valid complaint. But then again, maybe we shouldn't expect location data be treated any differently than any other data stored on users' phones.
So let's hope this most recent flareup of Locationgate ultimately serves more to educate and promote the exciting opportunities that lie in location-aware apps and less to make people afraid of them.