By now, you should know that both Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL ) and Google (Nasdaq: GOOG ) like to track your whereabouts. iPhones have been collecting rough-hewn location data at least since last summer and possibly longer, and Android phones have been collecting and reporting more fine-grained GPS data since Day One.
The tinfoil-hat crowd would have you disable your GPS functionality, delete or encrypt your iTunes database, then move into a concrete bunker with a sawed-off shotgun and a three-year supply of bottled water and condensed soup, for several seemingly sensible reasons:
- Apple and Google could be using this data for shady purposes, such as detecting your political views or figuring out how to sell you more stuff. The KGB and the Yakuza are probably in on it, unless it's a CIA operation through-and-through.
- They never told us that we were going to be tracked in such minute detail, and I might not want my location known. Bank robbers would be well advised not to bring their smartphones to the next hit, for example. I'd expect location logging from my Garmin (Nasdaq: GRMN ) or TomTom GPS system, but this phone even follows me out of the car -- and it's a dang phone, not a GPS mapper!
- Somebody else might be able to hack into my phone, the systems it syncs data with, or maybe even the central servers, and then we're back to bullet point No. 1. Except this time I can't even plan for a Google-led attack, because the perp would be unknown.
- Dude, have you ever heard of privacy?
But I don't think it's a big deal, for plenty of even better reasons:
- Google and Apple have options when it comes to tracking our personal lives. Online searches say a lot, which is one reason why Google is trying so hard to get you signed into Big G's ecosystem -- and enable both better services and better advertising. iTunes listening and purchasing habits can define your personality in a pretty sharp profile, too. And leave the poor CIA out of this.
- New Android users are told up front that the GPS system will share tracking details to Google, and Apple's little mapping database has been known for a long time. Moreover, the 15,000-word iTunes user agreement you didn't read before agreeing to clearly says that "Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device."
- Grabbing your data requires access to your phone, your PC or Mac computer, or the Fort Knox-style digital fortresses of Apple and Google themselves. It's not impossible but very difficult to do, and I'm not sure what grievous harm could come from stealing your location history when your personal email, tax records, and credit card numbers might sit on the same hard drive, unencrypted. There's bigger fish to fry.
- As for privacy, well, how often do you check in with Foursquare or send a location-rich Tweet? If privacy really mattered to the average consumer, then Facebook would be a sorry shadow of its powerhouse heft and LinkedIn wouldn't be headed for a billion-dollar IPO. Those services trade social media features for your secrecy, and so do the smartphone guys. Google pumps anonymous location data into its maps service to report real-time traffic jams, and Apple's MobileMe wouldn't be the same if its servers couldn't find you on a map.
So you win some and you lose some. I'd bet you a dollar that AT&T (NYSE: T ) and Verizon (NYSE: VZ ) also track the same smartphones with Apple's coarse-grained cell tower triangulation, though that data is locked inside telco servers. Nobody is crying about that.
So where's the beef?
This might have been news last year, when Apple's tracking data actually was new. Now, senators are writing angry letters because a couple of researchers made the data easier to read -- and to panic over.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Opt out of whatever services don't feel right when you really think about them, and leave the rest alone. While tests show cell phone towers and Wi-Fi spots are storing location data on iPhones even if tracking is turned off, locations are inexact and pressure from Congressional sources could lead to stricter privacy provisions. Neither Apple nor Google are out to get you killed by the Russian mafia -- though they might use the data to make a buck.
I'm keeping my Android phone GPS-tastic, because Google Maps is a better navigation service than my old Garmin Nuvi. And if it helps Google out-localize Groupon, I don't have a problem with that. It's a free market, baby.