The Palm Pre has made headlines this week after a mobile developer discovered that his Pre was gathering information and ‘phoning home' to report details regarding his location, the applications he used, and more. Any implication that privacy is being violated is virtually guaranteed to spark a passionate response from users, and this Palm Pre story is no exception. The thing is that this ‘violation' of privacy is not unique to the Pre and is also more or less standard operating procedure for many technologies today.
When you use location based services, we will collect, transmit, maintain, process, and use your location and usage data (including both real time geographic information and information that can be used to approximate location) in order to provide location based and related services, and to enhance your device experience.
There is a larger issue here as well though. The backlash implies that users were genuinely surprised and offended that Palm might be able to determine where they are at any given moment, or how they use their mobile device. Apparently users consider that to be a heinous violation of privacy. What these users fail to realize is that this type of data is gathered constantly in almost every interaction or transaction they are involved in.
The larger issue of privacy has been addressed in books such as Database Nation by Simson Garfinkel, or Beyond Fear by Bruce Schneier. When you fill your car up with gas and pay with your credit or debit card it provides information- someone can establish exactly where you were at that given time of day. If you purchase a bag of Doritos and a Coke, that information is also collected. When you place a call from your cell phone information is stored regarding which cell your phone is in at that time- more or less pinpointing your general location at that time.
With devices like the Palm Pre or the Apple iPhone and any number of other mobile devices the types and amount of data being collected can be much greater. Apps that help you find your car have to somehow pinpoint the location of your vehicle and your current location in order to connect the dots and return you to your vehicle. Apps that help you find the nearest ATM have to determine where you are and compare it against the database of known ATM's in order to direct you to the nearest one. It is not a ‘violation of privacy', it is a tradeoff accepted by users in exchange for tools and utilities that help make their lives easier.
Tony Bradley is an information security and unified communications expert with more than a decade of enterprise IT experience. He tweets as @PCSecurityNews and provides tips, advice and reviews on information security and unified communications technologies on his site at tonybradley.com.