Back in 1993, The New Yorker ran a cartoon by Peter Steiner with the caption “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. Today this couldn’t be further from the truth. In 2011 we leave digital traces of ourselves everywhere we go and in whatever we do – and the recent Apple iPhone and iPad location tracking infraction is just one more example of this.
In April it emerged that the iPhone and iPad store location data in an unencrypted file. The data from this file can be used to effectively retrace the steps we have taken. On every iPhone and iPad there is a file that records the user’s locations at regular intervals. Taken over a period of months, this creates a record of our movements, made accessible to Apple.
But it’s not just Apple that is culpable of collecting data in this manner. Apple, Google and Microsoft all use cellphone towers and WiFi access points to correlate our positions. They not only map our movements, they store them too. And if used together with other apps and internet services, it might be possible to build up a sophisticated profile of us as individuals.
So should we be worried about this? After all, as MG Siegler pointed out in TechCrunch last week, without collecting data in this way, many of the location services, including most of the location-based apps that are now popular, would not work. (1) Personalised computing is now the norm. And hyper-personalisation is fast becoming a reality. To really gain from the benefits that these advances in technology can bring we do have to accept that we are handing over a great deal of personal information over to private companies.
And for most people this does not seem to be of great concern. Customers understand that the smart phone that they bought with location-based services needs location data for those services to work. The problem with Apple’s behaviour is that it didn’t flag this with its customers or ask if it could record the location data. So instead of appearing transparent and open about recording our location data, these companies appear to be hiding the fact.
It is true that technology companies like Apple and Google do seem to adopt a lax and careless attitude towards privacy and the use of our personal data. These companies tend to have a cybernetic view of the world where there is just information flowing between nodes. And in that system, notions of human autonomy and privacy play a very small part.
Chris Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher, goes further arguing in The Register that “when you get stopped by the police and they arrest you for any crime, they can search your phone and get any data off of it. This is definitely something that people should be concerned about and I think what it points to is that Apple isn’t taking privacy seriously.” (3)
Some journalists and politicians in the US and UK have called for more privacy regulations and restrictions on how data is collected and stored. (2) But will more processes and regulations help to allay people’s fears and suspicions that big corporations are acting surreptitiously?
Going forward, we should put the principle of informed consent at the centre of digital tracking and data collection and make it easier for users to pull their information off the internet. We should also make it easier for users to understand the consequences of what happens when we hand over vast amounts of data about ourselves in exchange for internet services.
However it would be wrong to assume that this discussion is just about how our personal data is collected or stored. Increased regulation and legislation around data collection or privacy policies will not allay concerns in and of themselves. The reason Apple could simply overlook the importance of transparency in data collection reflects the fact that as a society we ourselves have adopted a more ambiguous relationship to privacy.
The line between what we consider public and private information has become increasingly blurred and many contradictory attitudes and practices co-exist – often in the same individuals. While in some contexts we readily to give up our privacy, in others we seem increasingly anxious to protect it. For example we often use the same password across multiple personal accounts and reveal masses of personal information about ourselves on social networking sites but are also extremely paranoid about data collection, online transactions and identity-theft.
We cannot blame new technologies or our enthusiastic adoption of them for the way our notions of public and private have been transformed. Privacy used to be regarded as being a supreme bourgeois virtue. The principle of needing a separation of the public and private sphere has always been a key element of democracy and freedom since the Enlightenment. Collectively we have allowed the erosion of privacy as a social value and as such we must be the ones who begin to renew the notion of privacy as something worth defending.
(2) The Financial Times, Editorial, 3 May 2011