Apple is Tracking iPhone and iPad Users: FUD Times!

Shelly's iPhone Tracked by Apple

Shelly's iPhone Tracked by Apple

Restless leg syndrome, Vacuums that lose suction, Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction and most recently, Apple knows where you are and where you’ve been! It’s all FUD-mongering. (FUD is an acronym for fear, uncertainty and doubt.) And Apple has inspired a huge FUD cycle. It’s not surprising. People are always looking for things to be scared of. But this shouldn’t be one of them.

We’ll get into a non-technical description of what Apple is actually doing in a second. But before we do, let’s try to understand data-driven advertising and its close cousin, the location-based app. In order for a location-based app to use your location to help you achieve your goals (i.e.: finding a restaurant, movie theater, gas station, weather report, local time, etc.) it needs to know your location. This is accomplished in many ways, such as triangulation from cell towers or utilization a special GPS chip inside the device. It is important to understand that knowing your precise location at a given moment is not something that a computer can use very well. It needs to store the data in a database so that it can access it when it is required. How many locations and times should be stored? Well, it depends upon what kind of application you are running and what job it is trying to do. Is your current location and five previous locations enough? Should it be 10? How about everywhere you’ve ever been with the device?

Let’s move on. What other information might a location-based app use to deliver an emotionally satisfying result? User preferences? Past behaviors? Credit card balance? Available debit card balance? Time left on your auto lease? Where you parked your car? How many times you checked into a location on Foursquare? How many time you Tweeted from the vicinity? Etc, etc, etc.

When you combine hyper-personal information with location, you get a wonderful opportunity to customize applications and user experiences. When you store this information and learn from it, you get an even better opportunity to improve the user experience and add value. This is the only goal of location-based apps and data-driven advertising.

Can the information be used in a malicious way? Yes. But it is really, really hard to do. And, it requires a very motivated malicious individual or organization to do it.

Can this information be used for good? Absolutely. And, it almost always is.

Just for the record, Apple is not tracking you. Your iPhone and iPad (assuming they are 3G enabled and running iOS 4) have been keeping a time-stamped record of where you have been neatly tucked away in a file. It is not being shared with Apple or anyone else. And, BTW, you are asked if you would like this information to be made available to your apps every time you run them. So, let’s not get crazy. Apple (and almost every app maker) knows they are being watched by “big brother” watchers and they take privacy very seriously.

Can someone steal this data, or just look at it? 1) Not without a fair bit of computer expertise. 2) Not without the password to your computer. Wait, you don’t password protect your computer? Stop complaining about this issue, actually, stop talking about it all together. If you don’t have a strong password protecting your computer and your smart phone, you do not have standing to comment on this subject.

Should people who take reasonable precautions to protect their digital lives be worried? No. Not unless a court of competent jurisdiction has subpoena power to seize your personal property as evidence. If so, then by all means, panic. Otherwise, take a deep breath and a step back and remember, we are living in a digital world where there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.

Phone companies keep track of every call you make and wireless carriers store every call, every txt message and your location at all times. This is not new and it’s not a secret. The only difference between what Apple and the phone companies are doing is that Apple is storing your information on your devices and the carriers store your information on their devices. Can the info be accessed? Third parties would need a subpoena in both cases. Where is it safer? It is equally safe in both places.

But these two guys from the UK just made an app that shows where I’ve been! Yep, they did. Not a bad piece of programming. Since your computer and your iPhone and your iPad are password protected, so is your data. Want to do more? In iTunes, click your device’s icon (iPhone or iPad) and enable “Encrypt iPhone/iPad backup.” That pretty much covers it.

But what about the bigger question of privacy? Should Apple be collecting this data in the first place? I like this question. It’s “the” question of the 21st century. Are we willing to accept the benefits of location based services at the cost of our privacy? As I just said, in the 21st century, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy. If you’re below the socio-techno divide (under age 40) you are less likely to care about this kind of privacy issue, and you are probably already learning to trust the benign reality of our technocracy. If you’re over the age of 40, there’s a very good chance that this issue really bothers you and you are going to (for personal reasons) be a FUD-monger about it.

I don’t mean to downplay best practices and good digital citizenship. I believe that the biggest tech companies, advertisers and media companies have a duty to get out ahead of this and stay there. Data collection and data mining are already big business and, as we become more digitally dependent, it is going to get even bigger.

But remember, you leave an electronic trail with everything you do. Security cameras see you every day. EZ Pass knows how fast you drive. Banks know everything about your finances. Several organizations have your social security number. Credit card companies know what you purchase, when you purchase it, and exactly where you purchase it, which by the way, provides a much better picture of your intentions than anything Apple is doing.

What’s going to happen? Privacy online and offline is going to be the biggest bipartisan campaign issue. Everyone hates the idea of “big brother” and Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft and the other tech giants are big, easy targets. You know how to get votes, spread FUD. But this issue is not new. As David Pogue said, “Yes, Big Brother is watching you. But he’s been watching you for years, well before the iPhone log came to light, and in many more ways than you suspect. And you know what? I’ll bet he’s bored to tears.” Shelly Palmer




Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is Managing Director, Digital Media Group at Landmark Ventures/ShellyPalmer a technology focused Investment Banking & Advisory practice specializing in M&A, Financings, Strategic Partnerships and Innovation Access. He is Fox 5 New York's On-air Tech Expert and well known for his work on Fox Television's Shelly Palmer Digital Living as well as his daily radio report on United Stations Radio Networks. For more information, visit


  1. AdamC says:

    So far the most informative piece I have read, not like the rest that spread FUD and the worst are comments from people who knows next to nothing.

    Good job, nyw I am above forty and since I have nothing to hide I have nothing to fear unlike some paranoid fanbois.

    • chuck says:

      Oh get it. Adam believes if you have nothing to hide you don’t need privacy? Privacy = Hiding??
      A right over guilt. I have nothing to hide. But I still cover my information on my luggage tag, don’t you?. I wonder if we all should walk around with our drivers licenses pinned to our suites with our personal information to prove we have nothing to hide. Give me a break. We have the luxury in North America to live in a democratic and free population. The attempt to discredit something that the people of our two great nations clearly have an issue with, privacy rights, by equating privacy with having somehing to hide is simply low brow and stupid.
      If Adam has nothing to hide perhaps he should begin to walk around daily with all his personal information available for all to see. Does he have an iPhone/smart phone? Perhaps he should upload his years information with location data on the internet for all to see how he has nothing to hide! I respect people’s right to privacy and am not so Suspicious to think of my surrounding to believe if everybody’s information is not available they have something to hide.
      I believe it stil to be our right to divulge our private information to whom we wish. Don’t you.? Because when you get down to the real crucks of the matter, choice is FREEDOM, No?

  2. Chuck says:

    Nice try,

    Businesses only have one thing in mind, PROFIT!
    To attempt to discredit by age is simply discriminating and unacceptable. Your understanding and opinions weigh even less when one realizes if you are in the under 40 crowd you are in the Minority of North Americans! So readers should think about this. This arrogant demeanor flies in the face of WISDOM. OLDER people have lived longer and hopefully we all have learned a thing or two from our parents and Grandparents along with other generations to make sense of this world. Privacy should be protected as our courts concur. Although it is plain to see you simply are willing to give up your right to privacy for a “magic bean” application.

    If we don’t protect privacy there will be none to protect.

    To provide businesses with “Cart Blanche” access to every bit of our lives is simply Stupid.
    Having a company allegedly do so without our consent is just not right. Our freedom that was fought for by our ancestors in North America is consistently being eroded and it causes great concern that our next generation is simply giving them away without question, for trinkets!

    I believe our PRIME concern is to leave a world for our children. Maybe the author doesn’t have any. But then again I suggest he doesn’t fully understand why we purchase insurance either. It’s for peace of mind for what the future may bring. How sure are we of our future?
    Privacy and freedom it’s in the constitution and Canadian charter of Rights.
    Go read them and see what values have been passed on by the over forty club as you so easily dismissed.



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