Apple's Location Scandal: Nothing But Hot Air

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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.

Watch out!
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?

Yeah, right
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.

Fool contributor Anders Bylund owns shares of Google but holds no other position in any of the companies discussed here. Google and AT&T are Motley Fool Inside Value picks. Google is a Motley Fool Rule Breakers recommendation. Apple is a Motley Fool Stock Advisor selection. Motley Fool Options has recommended a bull call spread position on Apple. The Fool owns shares of Apple, and Google. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. You can check out Anders' holdings and a concise bio if you like, and The Motley Fool is investors writing for investors.

Read/Post Comments (6) | Recommend This Article (5)

Comments from our Foolish Readers

Help us keep this a respectfully Foolish area! This is a place for our readers to discuss, debate, and learn more about the Foolish investing topic you read about above. Help us keep it clean and safe. If you believe a comment is abusive or otherwise violates our Fool's Rules, please report it via the Report this Comment Report this Comment icon found on every comment.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2011, at 8:48 PM, xmmj wrote:

    I agree it is blown out of proportion but privacy IS an issue with me.

    So far - we have no evidence that Apple is actually using the location database. There is one report that the DB's intent is to store recent data locations for use with legitimate service (such as if I want to know how to get from here to point B), but that the programmer failed to write or test the routines to clean it out.

    I am much more concerned about Google who has a lot more motivation to use that data, and has a history of disregarding privacy. (Remember when they started gmail and wanted to parse all your emails until the internet community screamed bloody murder?)

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2011, at 9:03 PM, CMFSoloFool wrote:

    For those that care about their privacy, this is a pretty big deal. But all they have to do is Just add an opt-out option, case closed. The media is blowing it out of proportion, not the researchers that found the problem. That's what the media does.

  • Report this Comment On April 26, 2011, at 10:50 PM, joaquingrech wrote:

    It's actually a pretty big issue. I develop mobile applications and I know how to get those files with the information. You might believe that since you are already sharing that info sometimes on twitter, but that's up to you, the problem with this is that it's no longer up to you.

    If I were to rob your phone, I could check all your common locations from a year to today to analyze where you go most often.

    I don't need to rob your phone, I can just hack your pc and get that file out of the itunes db. Ever got a virus? well, now picture what's going to be the next file the virus will be looking for in your pc. Exactly. Only a few thousand new viruses shows up every day, not a big deal right?

    Lastly, you might think is ok, but imagine that phone is from your kid who was taught to say "no" when the "share location" popup asked. Thanks to Apple and Google's practices, now I can get the location of the kid for the past 1 year. Still think is not a big deal?

    Seriously, this sucks. It's a huge security and safety hole. No data what-so-ever, specially one that can compromise your safety, should be allowed to be collected without clear consent (not a small letter paragraph lost in 50 pages document). And when collected it should be encrypted, which is not even the case right now on Apple's phone.

    Yes, it's a big deal.

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2011, at 1:54 AM, iParadigm2watch wrote:

    I am not impressed. So they ( whoever the multitude of they's are?) track my boring life.

    Like I'm a person who is up to anything worth tracking.

    I could care less if everything is stolen, altered or otherwise used without my knowledge. I just start over. As I have done very well to myself on occasion, without the help of my identity being stolen, used or whatever.

    I just don't see the worth in this whole privacy hysteria. There has not been any privacy since we all began using social security numbers ( given one at birth I Understand) I, you, most of us, are in a zillion systems all over the place.

    Way too paranoid people.

    But I would like a few copies of some of the 60 to 90 pictures taken of me each day as I travel through a city. (I read that some ware!). And I read that a long time ago. So I guess I am photographed these days, a few thousand times throughout the day. Getting on and off the bus.(on the bus!); the train, the government building. The sidewalk outside and up the street more cameras. They are every ware these days....On and on..

    ....So if I fall in a ravine and cant get out, maybe my GPS or whatever is tracking me, will lead to my rescue.....but I would not bet my life on that either! Ha!

    There in, lies the goof of this whole subject!

    I can hardly believe I wasted this much time just typing this. On my iPad2 by the way.

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2011, at 5:07 AM, Henry3Dogg wrote:

    I care a lot about privacy.

    But the iPhone backup including the location log being a privacy breach is ludicrous.

    At worst, it a minor security concern. But then all backed up data is a security concern unless kept securely, either physically or encrypted.

    Next week the NASDAQ rebalance will complete and I suspect that the hedges have been pulling every bad news stunt they can, in the hope of getting one more low priced entry point before Apple take a clear run at $450

  • Report this Comment On April 27, 2011, at 8:35 AM, MaxTheTerrible wrote:

    I actually disagree that this issue is "nothing but hot air". You could argue that success of Apple products largely rests on a coolness factor and tracking your customers is not cool...

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