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Senate hearings become Apple witch hunt.

Apple and Google took a drubbing from the US Senate yesterday over location based services.  At issue — Apple’s use of GPS data collected on iPhone in order to improve the accuracy and speed of location fixes.

As I wrote in July 2009, iPhone (and I’m sure all other mobile handsets today) uses assisted GPS, or AGPS, which is an amalgam of WiFi, cell tower location, and GPS data, to locate the device.  It is a dramatic improvement over GPS alone.  Early mobile location services were simply too slow.  It could take a minute or two – sometime three – to fix location on a handset that supported GPS but not AGPS, and who has time to wait that long just to find the location of the nearest Starbucks?

I think there is legitimate concern when any company collects identifiable personal location data.  The iPhone apparently does this when it tracks your location on your own handset in order to deliver you, personally, a better experience.  iPhone keeps a database of locations I’ve visited on my handset.  Periodically, according to Apple’s claims, personally identifiable information about me is stripped from the data, and then submitted to Apple to improve the quality of their global location database.

I’m okay with that.  Some might not be, but I am.

What Apple claims to be doing is no different than how many other businesses anonymously “crowd-source” data from individuals in order to provide a better service for others – think Amazon recommendations, for example, or the way in which Microsoft collects anonymous crash reports from PC’s. Moreover, the improvement in service that has resulted from the collection of this data is dramatic.  There simply wouldn’t be any location based services on handsets if Apple hadn’t done this.

What the Senate committee needs to do is to ensure that the location data being collected, and how that data is being used, is disclosed sufficiently to the customer in order to allow the customer to determine what is disclosed.  And any data which is collected needs to be stripped of personally identifiable information and made anonymous before it is transmitted to Apple or any other vendor.

I believe Apple was mostly doing the right things with this data already.  And while we should all welcome any privacy oversight that the US Senate is willing to offer, it should concern everyone that what appears to be a heavily politicized process will result in a diminished quality of service as Apple releases “bug fixes” to appease the committee in this high profile hearing.

Let’s hope this doesn’t degenerate into a witch hunt.

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{ 3 comments… add one }

  • Bob Atkinson May 11, 2011, 3:54 pm

    All good points.

    The elephant in the room, though, is law enforcement and civil lawsuits. With the data now known to be there, it’s only a small matter of time before someone’s iPhone is subpoenaed and used against them in a court of law. And history shows, I believe, that you can’t work around that technologically or with laws prohibiting it: if the data is there, it will come out.

    I, for one, want to be able to communicate without creating an electronic trail by which I or others I care about could be persecuted.

    • alec May 11, 2011, 4:42 pm

      True enough, Bob. I think Apple and other handset manufacturers could take this a step further, and allow people to control directly how much data is stored, or not, on the handset.

    • Ken Hagler June 4, 2011, 9:52 pm

      There’s no need for the government to go to the trouble of getting someone’s iPhone when they can just pull up the location data for that phone that AT&T (or Verizon) has already handed over to them without question or hesitation. And customers have no legal recourse, as the Senate has already voted to block them from suing phone companies for collaborating with the government’s illegal spying.

      These hearings are very much a case of the pot calling the slightly dingy snow black.

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