There's been a lot of hoop-la lately about Apple supposedly tracking users' location and Google, as well as each carrier, has now been brought onto the hot seat to answer questions about how they handle location information and gathering. It's not a new idea that our location and actions are being tracked by someone. We've been hearing about that for years now, and not just by conspiracy theorists. It's pretty much accepted as fact now. Still, every time we hear a new story about a company tracking our location and storing the data, it seems to strike a certain nerve with us and we just can't seem to let it go. (Probably because no one likes the idea of being tracked.) We all know what Apple, Google, and the carriers are being accused of, but are they actually doing this? Do they have a plan to fix the problem? And is it even a problem worth worrying about? Well, we decided to discuss that in this week's PhoneDog Live.
This seemed to come out of nowhere, but it didn't really. Two articles, one that appeared in the New York Times on March 26th and another one published on O'Reilly Radar on April 20th, both of which brought to our attention in a strong way how a specific person's location was being tracked and stored by their carrier or their iPhone, violently yanked this topic from the back of our minds to the forefront of reality. So what is Apple doing? Are they tracking and logging our location? Apple answered that question straight-forward. Simply put, Apple is not simply logging your location, meticulously keeping track of where you've been and what you're doing. Instead, at least according to Apple, they are "maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location." Apple is doing this to "help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested." Seems like an explanation written by a lawyer, right? Sounds like the same old 'I didn't lie, I just didn't tell the truth' loophole. For what it's worth, it does make sense. Here's another way of putting it: "The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location." (Italics mine.) The purpose of this is not to track your phone, but to gather information about your particular area so that they can improve their location-based services, like Maps and GPS.
Regardless of how you explain it, people still don't like it and Apple realizes that. Apple is sending out a software update that will limit the length of time this information is stored on your iPhone (as it is, most users are seeing data that's been held for a year), will fix a bug that currently allows the phone to continue tracking the iPhone's location even when this feature is turned off, and a later release will encrypt this cache of information on your phone. Is that enough? You tell me. We know Google has now been dragged into this though I can't find any logical reason for that. Google's location services are strictly opt-in only and the option is made very clear the first time you turn on your phone and can easily be changed in the Settings menu. Verizon is taking the safest route and just putting stickers on all their phones that notify users of the ability for carriers to track your location.
So, is this a real problem? Depends on how you look at it. If you look at it from the point of view that we're all being tracked by someone and there's nothing we can do about it, then it's nothing to panic about. Besides, what are they going to do with this information anyway? As far as we know, nothing really harmful. Even when the data is sent to Apple, it is anonymous and encrypted. Apple claims that no matter how detailed the information may be, they couldn't track who it actually came from. As for the carriers' involvement, they've all made it very clear that customers must opt-in before any location data is gathered or stored. Still, just because it's harmless, anonymous, or even optional, the fact that it can be done is what bothers most people.
We'll have to wait and see how these lawsuits end up before we really know if it's a definite problem or not. In the meantime, we have plenty of good news to talk about. The white iPhone 4 was released (finally). We also have a ton of Android device releases as well - the Droid Incredible 2, Casio G'zOne Commando, Galaxy S II, and the Droid Charge - all of which we had a good time drooling over during the broadcast. We're still not sure what's up with the Droid Bionic. We know now that it has been delayed, but will it still be the same phone? Motorola has said that they "are incorporating several enhancements to make this an even better consumer experience. This includes expanded features, functionality and an improved form factor." So it may have the same name, but the phone itself may be quite different once it's finally released. Summer can't come soon enough.
If you'd like to watch the next episode of PhoneDog Live, we'll be broadcasting every Friday at 5 p.m. from our Ustream channel. You can watch it directly from Ustream or from our Facebook page. This week's show is available to watch on our YouTube channel.