Trackergate picks up steam, but is it just a bunch of hot air?

Apr 26, 2011

Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have been under fire because their smartphones are following every move you make. Government on all levels wants a piece of this one. Congressional hearings are afoot as we predicted. Investigations are underway already in several countries as regulators get on the Trackergate bandwagon. And government should be looking after […]

Apple (AAPL) and Google (GOOG) have been under fire because their smartphones are following every move you make.

Government on all levels wants a piece of this one.

Congressional hearings are afoot as we predicted. Investigations are underway already in several countries as regulators get on the Trackergate bandwagon.

And government should be looking after the public interest after all. But there is the possibility there is some grandstanding going on. Are the location scans a feature or an invasion of privacy? Maybe some light will come from all this heat.

As Brad Spirrison pointed out in Appolicious, the apps industry may be facing another scandal as it did with last summer with antenna-gate.

If Apple and Google don’t play this right, the public could lose faith in the leading smartphone operating systems and their developers. This could be a real setback to this rapidly growing industry. Will we get lost without our privacy being invaded?

Cartoonists are getting in on the act. Joy of Tech shows Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs at Apple’s secret tracking station below Cupertino. Check it out for a hilarious take on the invasion of the privacy snatchers.

Trackergate is unfolding so quickly, it’s hard to keep track. But here goes:

Congress is seeking explanations

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn), who chairs the Senate’s new Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, has scheduled a hearing, entitled Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones and Your Privacy, for May 10. He has has invited representatives from Apple and Google. Confirmed witnesses include officials from the Department of Justice and the Federal Trade Commission; Ashkan Soltani, independent privacy researcher and consultant; and Justin Brookman, director of the Center for Democracy and Technology’s Project on Consumer Privacy. He says he looking out for the kids who are using iPoda and iPads.

Franken wrote Apple CEO and co-founder Steve Jobs: “The existence of this information—stored in an unencrypted format—raises serious privacy concerns.

“Anyone who finds a lost or stolen iPhone or iPad or who has access to any computer used to sync one of these devices could easily download and map out a customer’s precise movements for months at a time.”

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Franken has asked Apple:

  • Why were Apple consumers not informed of the collection and retention of their location data in this manner?
  • How frequently is a user’s location recorded?
  • Why is this information not encrypted?
  • To whom, if anyone, including Apple, has this data been disclosed?
  • What is the purpose of collecting this location data?

And Cong. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) has asked Jobs to explain by no later than May 12 why iPhones and IPads collect location data whenever the devices are synched.

Illinois wants to know…so do several countries

Illinois Attorney Gen. Lisa Madigan wants to meet with Google and Apple execs to discuss the reports. French, German, Italian and South Korean regulators also want answers.

And then there is the inevitable class action suit.

A class action lawsuit has been filed by Apple users in federal court in Tampa.

Aaron Mayer, an attorney for the plaintiffs, told Bloomberg said: “We take issue specifically with the notion that Apple is now basically tracking people everywhere they go. If you are a federal marshal, you have to have a warrant to do this kind of thing, and Apple is doing it without one.”

Has Jobs chimed in?

Jobs didn’t respond to reporters.

But a MacRumors reader said he heard from Jobs via iPhone. Jobs allegedly insisted Apple isn’t tracking anyone.

MacRumors said: “One MacRumors reader emailed Apple CEO Steve Jobs asking for clarification on the issue while hinting about a switch to Android if adequate explanations are not forthcoming. Jobs reportedly responded, turning the tables by claiming both that Apple does not track users and that Android does while referring to the information about iOS shared in the media as ‘false.’”

Apple previously told Congress it “intermittently” collects data on iPhone users and Wi-Fi networks. The Journal last year reported that Google and Apple share such data with third parties without consumer knowledge or consent.

The Wall Street Journal also reported that Android smartphones are tracking smartphone users’ locations and sending the data to Google.

Google for its part noted to The Journal that “location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user.” In other words, when a user activates an Android phone, a screen appears saying Google’s service provides location to applications and that it will collect anonymous data even when no apps are running.

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Users can opt out by unchecking a box. But probably few pay any attention.

Google added: “Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

Are apologies necessary?

Henry Blodget in Business Insider declared the tracking an outrage and demanded that Apple apologize.

He said: “Your iPhone has been secretly tracking and storing everywhere you go. That’s right. Apple built this feature into your iPhone without telling you. By doing so, Apple made it possible for anyone who gets ahold of your iPhone or Mac (or any other device synced with either) to figure out exactly where you were when–including police, the government, anyone who sues you, private investigators, and anyone who steals your iPhone.”

On the other hand, my friend Peter Christy, a retired engineer from Wilmington, Del., wonders what the fuss is about.

He said: “(I expect) my iPhone photographs and movies to be geo-tagged with GPS coordinates. Similarly, I expect my iPhone to know where it is at all times so I can use geo-locating apps to find nearby restaurants, navigate unfamiliar cities, etc. Why should I be surprised … much less concerned … that the iPhone not only keeps that data, but also uploads it to Apple’s servers … just like it uploads my contacts, calendars, bookmarks, etc.?”

Still, not everyone takes tracking in stride. They feel violated.

Apple and Google need some data to provide location-based service. But do they need all the data they’re collecting? The companies need to clarify this to regulators before Trackergate really blows up.

At the very least, the situation poses a PR issue. Google at least asks smartphone owners if they want to be tracked.

Google and Apple need to be proactive—educate their consumers, give them the choice to opt out and make them aware of the implications of opting out, stop collecting what they don’t need.

Meanwhile, let the smartphone user beware.

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Howard Wolinsky

Howard Wolinsky is a Chicago freelance writer specializing in health and tech topics. He covered those beats for the Chicago Sun-Times.

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