Locationgate: Now You See Me, Now You Don’t

Today, representatives from Apple and Google are appearing before Congress to explain the use of location data in their respective mobile phone platforms (iOS and Android). This is the latest development in the ongoing ‘locationgate’ episode that began when it was revealed that the iPhone stores user data including the position of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots that could potentially reveal a user’s location. An even more alarming controversy erupted when the Wall Street Journal reported that devices running Android not only store data, but send it back to the Google ‘mothership.’

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Some have argued that this is basically a non-issue because the location information that is stored is not really potentially dangerous even if it did wind up in someone else’s hands. However, whether or not ‘locationgate’ is based on a misunderstanding is beside the point now. When it comes to the reputation of Apple and Google, it is now their job to explain what they do with user data and why.

Both companies have insisted that they collect data with users’ permission. Apple has released an update which corrects for locationgate by turning off the location storing feature unless users allow it. At this point, Google has not yet made a similar move. What both companies need to do now is reassure users that their private information is not being distributed to third parties nor is it being used in any way that they have not given express permission for.

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The issue of privacy in a digital world is fast becoming a top consumer concern. Fears about digital privacy have not been helped by the recent hacking of millions of user’s data from Sony’s online properties, including Playstation Network. Even more disturbing was the time lag between when the information theft occurred and when Sony reported it. What are the implications of identity thefts like this for ‘the cloud?’ If information is ‘just floating out there’ how is anyone really secure? Companies like Sony, Apple, Google and others will have to effectively communicate how consumer data is kept private as these issues became more top of mind.

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Currently, Senator Al Franken (D-MN), Chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law, is grilling both Apple and Google on these digital privacy issues. This is the first congressional investigation of its kind, and it is a landmark event for the ongoing debacle of smart technology versus privacy. It is also a landmark event for the communications teams at both Apple and Google. Both companies have remained fairly aloof and sometimes dismissive so far, but now they are being called to explain themselves fully.

Digital privacy is a tricky issue. Consumers love smart technology.  We love being able to quickly navigate, find restaurants, and locate the nearest bus. However, the GPS technologies that enable these features are also responsible for privacy fears. Users more and more enjoy the growing connection between physical space and the digital world, as evidenced by the popularity of social media platforms like Foursquare and mobile applications like Yelp and AroundMe. Regardless, anxieties about this connection and what it means for privacy are also widespread. After today’s hearing, we might have a little bit better of an idea how the lines will be drawn to ensure that both effective mobile technology and regulated user privacy can coexist.

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