Apple was outed last week for doing something either sinister or stupid (or both): Researchers revealed that the iPhone remembers where you’ve been pretty much all the time and saves that information in a way that almost anyone can access.
The revelation whipped up a media frenzy, and why not? Internet privacy is a hot topic — rightly so — as more of our computing goes mobile. The biggest subsidy for access to free and cheap content remain targeted ads. The more relevant the ad, the more valuable they are to advertisers and publishers — and the less annoying to the consumer. Google alone makes about $5 billion every three months mainly on ads that are more likely to pique your interest because they are determined by what you are searching for, or key words in your e-mails.
This iPhone dossier should not exist, at least in its current form. It lives, zombie-like, without any form or protection of encryption, not only on your iPhone but also on the computer you use to sync and back it up. Even if Apple isn’t hand-feeding your bread trail into the salivating mouths of sleazy marketers (and there is no evidence it is) the mere existence of this database is very problematic for very practical reasons: It could, for example, give a jealous spouse new leverage to demand you produce actual evidence to back your word about working late last week, and your employer a means to verify that you really did have that expensive lunch you expensed.
But a funny thing happened while many of us were getting exercised about this curious discovery: Apple didn’t say a word about it. Nobody even asked about it during the company’s fortuitously-scheduled earnings conference call. Shares in the red-hot company even closed up on the week, largely on a quarterly report which saw profits nearly double.
Remember antenna-gate? When a slight design issue with the iPhone 4′s external antenna, which affected call quality, prompted CEO Steve Jobs to hold an uncomfortable live press event and offer anyone who wanted one a free case, $30 retail value? Remember when Jobs was seen as cavalier by tacitly acknowledging the problem by suggesting we should “Just avoid holding it in this way?”
The privacy issue presented by last week’s discovery is potentially much more serious, although it still looks to me like it will land much more on the side of stupid than sinister. There’s no evidence yet that Apple is doing anything more with the information than expediting the geo-location functionality that is central to many apps.
Remember when the nation’s telecommunication companies were sued for their role in President Bush’s once-secret electronic eavesdropping program? This is laughable in comparison. And yet there is no getting past the whole creepy quotient that your phone — a device most of us literally are never without — is keeping detailed records of our every move, and that doing anything about it yourself involves hacking your phone in a way relatively few have the stomach for.
It seems likely to me that Apple will tend to this in a routine iPhone software update and get away with limiting its comment on the whole episode to vague bullet points in the revision notes. Some record of recent waypoints is necessary for basic location-aware functionality, but perhaps the file will no longer be easily readable, won’t contain more than a few hours of data and won’t automatically transfer to your computer when you sync your iPhone.
And then we can all get back to worrying about the real invasions of our privacy.
Photo: Visual representation of iPhone tracking, courtesy the researchers who made the discovery / http://petewarden.github.com/iPhoneTracker/