So What Does Apple Really Know About You?

April 26th, 2011

There’s a growing and mostly media-inspired controversy about what information Apple’s Location Manager in your iPhone is collecting about you. Yes, there is a feature where you will allow the unit to store such information, but this data is supposedly stored anyway as a file regardless of your preference.

With growing concerns about online privacy, you have a right to concerned about what others know about you and your activities. If your movements are being tracked by outsiders, could that information possibly be used against you in some fashion, even if only to see if you’re more susceptible to certain online marketing schemes?

In a recent Wall Street Journal story, they actually checked the tracking file created by the iPhone. They confirmed that the file remains intact, regardless of your preference to record your location. According to published reports, authorities in South Korea and several European countries are probing Apple’s data recording activities to find out what’s really going on. Two U.S. Senators have dived in and requested a probe, and a lawsuit has been filed by private citizens in U.S. federal court.

Now understand Apple already stores a reasonable amount of information about you. In addition to product registration data, your iTunes account stores your address, phone number, and, most important, your billing preference. If you buy or rent something from iTunes, the App Store, or the Mac App Store, Apple is assured of getting prompt payment from you. Of course, that assumes your credit card is current, has enough of a credit limit to support the purchase, or there are enough available funds in your PayPal account.

My purchases from Apple have been modest over the years, so I’ve never exceeded the limits. As a journalist, when I review an Apple mobile gadget, they will send an iPhone gift card with which to make a few purchases, so the reviewer doesn’t have to reach into their own — or their employer’s — pockets unless they exceed the modest amount of cash available.

For the most part, iTunes has been an extremely secure environment for tens of millions of Apple customers. There have been reports of accounts being breached on a rare occasion, but the situation doesn’t appear to present a potential serious threat to customers. Besides, if you find a bogus charge on your credit card, or PayPal account (as I did recently when someone evidently skimmed the debit card number), you will be able to report the transaction to your financial institution and have it removed.

So far so good. Apple appears to be behaving as the responsible corporate citizen. Insofar as that infamous tracking file is concerned, unless someone gains control of your iPhone, and hacks it, the file is otherwise unavailable to any evildoer. It’s there strictly to allow you to your iPhone know where you are, so you can find a nearby restaurant, a supermarket, or use GPS with a navigation app.

At the same time, Google’s activities have also been the source of ongoing concerns. Consider that report a while back about vans traveling around the world to take photos for Google’s mapping feature, only to be caught sniffing unprotected Wi-Fi networks for data. Sure, they said, that was a mistake, but I’m not sure what you can believe. Remember, too, that Google is tracking your online activities, particularly in the apps that access their services, so you can be presented with carefully targeted ads. That is, of course, Google’s main source of revenue.

While there’s nothing wrong with making a fair profit from one’s products and services, the only issue here would be whether Google is invading your privacy, but you do have the option to opt out if you prefer.

As to the question about that mysterious tracking file in your iPhone, supposedly Apple isn’t capturing that file or its contents, and tracking your whereabouts. How do I know? Well, I don’t actually, but according to a published report, Steve Jobs said so in one of his unpredictable emails to a customer who threatened to get an Android OS phone if Apple didn’t give a satisfactory response to his concerns.

In answer to the first question, whether Google tracks users of Android OS smartphones, Jobs responded, “Oh yes they do.” He further added, “We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.”

I suppose it might be possible that this email is a fake. Phony messages of that sort to appear from time to time, but the rumor site on which it first appeared appears to be taking it seriously, I presume based on examining the headers in the message.

Then again, Macworld and other publications have said the same thing about that tracking file. It stays on your iPhone, and is not being uploaded to Apple. But it would be more reassuring to all concerned if the file was automatically deleted every few weeks. It would also help if Apple would make a clear statement as to how this feature is managed, and their policy about retrieving and managing customer information.

So far as The Night Owl is concerned, it makes perfect sense to be concerned about your privacy. If Apple is behaving badly, they should be called out on their offense, and face the consequences. If that tracking file is not a serious issue, and I hope it’s much ado about nothing, some clarification would be helpful for everyone. It would also be good to know how Google handles the tracking of its users, and what protections are being offered, not to mention Microsoft and other companies that offer products and services that keep tabs on your location.

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