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."