Location Tracking: Looking Past the Hype

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I sat down at my computer, prepared to sync my iPhone 4 with iTunes. But I looked at the simple white cord I use to connect the phone, and it suddenly seemed more ominous -- like it was some sort of spy transmitter, sending the private details of my life directly to Apple.

Maybe I should hold off on syncing, I thought. Maybe a little mindless Web surfing instead. So I fired up my browser and prepared to enter a query in my Google search toolbar. But, before I could search for "used wooden highchair," I hesitated again. What if that search query was stored along with my location, and I was forever to be bombarded with ads for local baby supply stores?

Hmmm. Maybe I should just turn off the computer and leave my smartphone behind for the day, I thought.

Or maybe I should get a grip.

With all of the headlines about location-tracking and online privacy violations, it's easy to live in fear. Fear that big companies like Apple and Google know too much about me and are somehow going to reveal my deepest, darkest secrets to the world. Or I could do some research and find out what kind of data these companies actually are collecting, and what they're doing with it. Because once you're informed, you'll find out that while some of the data- and location-collection practices might be a bit underhanded, but they're not as apocalyptic as some people might have us believe.

Phone Home?

The location-tracking brouhaha began when it was recently revealed that Apple's iPhones and iPads track and log users locations and store that data in a file that is easily accessible. The file is stored unencrypted on computers that have been synced with Apple's mobile devices, and can contain location data that goes back as far as a year.

Researchers also found that Apple's smartphones, as well as competing devices running Google's Android OS, regularly transmit location-based information to Apple and Google, respectively. So, too, do computers running Google's search toolbar and its Chrome browser.

And it's not just the manufacturer of these mobile devices and the software they run who are collecting information about users' locations: cellular carriers, too, are guilty of the same thing. Verizon Wireless, which says it will now put a sticker on new phones warning users that their location may be tracked, has said it holds personal data for up to seven years. AT&T may store data for a few days -- or five years. Sprint and T-Mobile both have similar policies.

Let's face it: if you're using any sort of mobile device, chances are that your location is being tracked. But that's not such a bad thing -- and it's not nearly as ominous as it sounds. Despite the use of the word "tracked," your every move is not being followed. And your location is not being transmitted onto a giant map in a secret room, where all of your movements can be followed with some sort of flashing beacon. That's not the case, not by a long shot.

The Benefits of Location Tracking

I agree that we should have a reasonable expectation of privacy. And I think that companies should be upfront and disclose what information they are collecting. And I definitely think that when you turn off the location-specific features of your mobile device, that device shouldn't be storing your location.

But I also know that a lot of the location data that's collected is used to deliver services that I want. I want my iPhone to know where I am -- and to find that location quickly -- when I turn on Google Maps to get directions. I want my Web browser to return local search results when I'm searching for the best pizza place. I want to be able to snap photos with my iPhone's camera and track where I took them.

I understand that the trade-off for these conveniences are the loss of some privacy. But isn't the same true every time I use a credit card? The only way to gain total anonymity would be to reject all the conveniences of modern society. I'm not willing to do that. Are you?

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