Sunday, 18 July 2010

Apple geotagging users

Apple now plans to target its smartphone users with geo-targeted advertising based on GPS or WiFi data provided by the device, and is "in the process of becoming an omnipresent and omniscient data leviathan" (Brauck et al, 2010). More concerns over geo-tagging.
In the past few days, every Apple customer who has attempted to buy something in the iTunes Music Store or the App Store has been confronted with a window in which he is asked to read and agree to new terms and conditions. In the text, the global corporation requests the customer's consent to Apple knowing where he -- and his iPhone, iPad or MacBook -- happens to be at any given time, and to Apple processing the information and even disclosing it to third parties.
In legal jargon, the message reads: Effective immediately, "Apple and our partners and licensees" may "collect, use and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device." Apple claims that this geographical data is "collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you." But the company does not specify exactly how it intends to ensure that this will be the case.
The move was met with outrage. It was the Los Angeles Times that seized upon the questionable passage, thereby bringing Apple, after Google and Facebook, its first real data privacy scandal. US bloggers promptly dubbed the program "iSpy," and the blog "The Consumerist" has characterized the company's thirst for data as "creepy."
Oddly enough, Apple has already used similar wording in its terms of use in the past, with the iPhone, for example. But as is often the case with such legalese, hardly anyone reads the fine print and realizes exactly what rights he is relinquishing to the company by checking a box and impatiently clicking on the "I accept" button.
As belated as all the fuss may be, it is nevertheless justified. The one thing that is clear is that the data Apple is gathering and storing is extremely sensitive. Someone who knows a person's exact whereabouts can reach surprisingly precise conclusions about his life. Apple, for its part, might as well forget about its anti-Orwellian image of itself.
To make matters worse, for the first time the company is trying to sell this information on a large scale to advertising customers.
Ironically, it was only in early June that the Apple CEO insisted that his company was very concerned about privacy. Jobs claims the company is particularly worried about the use of geographical location data obtained from smartphones. He even claimed that when it comes to privacy issues, Apple might seem old-fashioned, because of its wary view of things.
Now, as a problem that is not entirely new is finally being recognized, German politicians -- who have been very vocal in their criticism of the privacy policies of Google and Facebook -- are also expressing concern. Justice Minister Sabine Leutheusser-Schnarrenberger, a member of the pro-business Free Democratic Party (FDP), says that Apple must "immediately disclose" what data it captures, how long the data is stored and how it is used.
"It must be clear to the users of iPhones and other GPS-enabled devices what information about them is being gathered," says the minister, adding that it would be "inconceivable" if Apple were in fact to create personality or even mobility profiles of its users. "In this case, I feel that it is Apple's obligation to actually implement the transparency so often invoked by Steve Jobs." And then she added: "I expect Apple to provide German privacy groups with access to its databases."
Till Steffen, a Green Party politician and minister of justice for the city-state of Hamburg, also takes a critical view of the issue: "The providers' unclear data privacy rules show, once again, that privacy laws are lagging behind Internet technologies."
 Brauck, M., Hülsen, I. & Rosenbach, M. (trans. Sultan, C.) (2010) Apple Under Fire over Privacy in Germany. [Online],1518,703409,00.html [17/07/2010]