Fear, loathing and apathy about digital security

By Anthony De Rosa
April 27, 2011

Is Facebook just an elaborate direct marketer’s masterwork? Should I think twice before using my existing Twitter account to log into various services all around the web? Should I be worried about handing my credit card over to Sony? These and other perfectly valid and  simultaneously conspiracy theoretical ideas tend to float in and around my head from time to time. The big scare du-jour, is if Apple’s iPhone and Google’s mobile OS, Android, are tracking and archiving our every movement.

A journalistic tennis match on this topic took place over the course of the last few days. First, this is old news. Apple responded to congress regarding this almost a year ago. Digital forensics specialists have known you could track locations on iOS devices for some time, and have used the data to assist law enforcement. Alex Levinson, an RIT student, even published a research paper and subsequent book last December detailing data acquisition techniques for iOS products, like the iPhone and iPad. He says that Apple is not collecting the data.

The Wall Street Journal added Google to the mix, citing that Apple is not alone in the practice of collecting user information. Julia Angwin at the Journal claims that not only are Apple and Google collecting the data and storing it locally on the phone, but they actually regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google. The endgame? Angwin believes they’re racing to build a massive database of location information in order to tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services. Today, Apple seemed to indicate that was part of their plan, as they revealed they’re building a crowd-sourced traffic service.

Apple outright denies they’re collecting user locations.

“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

In response to the outcry, Apple will release an update to store less information about location and discontinue backing it up entirely. Apple claims that the information they were receiving was anonymous and only stored the wifi hotspots and cell towers around the phone, which could be up to 100 miles away.

I’m as digitally paranoid as the next guy, but this seems like an odd case and strange timing. Why did something that was discovered months ago only recently receive greater attention? Will we see the same thing happen with the earlier reports about apps collecting and sharing demographic information?

Much like Facebook boycotts, we seem to get up in arms about our data being compromised, captured, leveraged, bought and sold, only to lose interest and go on about our lives. Most of us don’t really have the time to care or feel the convenience and novelty of these devices and websites outweigh the potential of being taken advantage of. That’s exactly what many companies in the business of buying and selling data and demographics are banking on.

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