Lifestyle Technosavvy the July/August 2011 issue

Location, Location, Location

Your smartphone knows where you are. Big brother or much ado about nothing?
Posted on July 1, 2011

Your smartphone may not know when you are sleeping, awake or bad or good, but it does know where you are, give or take a few hundred feet. In fact, one of the things that make smartphones smart is that they have a good sense of where they are. They use that information to do helpful things for you, like find the nearest Thai takeout. That’s one of the reasons we buy them.

Still a contretemps arose this year when it was revealed that Apple’s iPhones were compiling location data. The obligatory congressional hearings and lawsuits ensued, embroiling not only Apple but Google as well, after it turned out that Android phones were also storing location data.

“Apple needs to ensure that an iPhone doesn’t become an iTrack,” Congressman Ed Markey, D-Mass., said in a letter to Apple.

The controversy soon spread to Europe, and the EU said it would consider giving location data the same privileged status as other sensitive personal information, such as data of birth, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Apple issued a software update to limit the amount of location data stored on its phones but stressed that it was not tracking individual iPhones. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so,” the company said. Google noted that its users need to opt in for location-based services and said any location data gathered by its phones is anonymous and deleted after a week.

Behind the uproar were fears that corporations were keeping databases of personally identifiable location data, selling it to third parties or using it for other invasive purposes.

A similar controversy erupted in Holland when it was learned that traffic data gathered by GPS navigation device maker TomTom was being used by the Dutch police to decide where to position speed cameras. This did not make TomTom users happy, and the company said it would prevent that from happening in the future.

Both incidents illustrate the fact that much of what we do in modern life, and many of the benefits we expect from technology, are tied to our devices knowing where they are and, as a consequence, where we are. Smartphones use that information not only to help you find the things you want, where you want them and when you want them, but also to provide better communications service.

As Apple General Counsel Bruce Webber said in a letter to Markey, “Consumers want directions from their current location to a desired destination; consumers want their devices to find the nearest coffee shop or gas station. To get this type of information, consumers want and expect their mobile devices to be able to quickly and reliably determine their current locations.”

Smartphones do this by keeping track of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots as well as through GPS data. Often the quickest way of determining a phone’s position is by triangulating among several cell towers. By gathering data from lots of phones, companies can improve their overall performance.
As an aside, location data also comes in handy for police—and attorneys—trying to determine whether someone was near a specific place. Remember, like other electronic devices, information kept on a smartphone is discoverable in legal proceedings. In fact, the California Supreme Court ruled this year that police can search through the data on smartphones seized in a legal arrest without obtaining a warrant.

Location data can also help keep you out of trouble, though, by allowing emergency responders to determine where your cell phone is within 50 to 300 meters when you call 911 under the FCC’s e911 regulations.

Want to know where your children are? Cell phones and smartphones can help you. Want to track down a stolen gadget? There are applications that use GPS and Wi-Fi signals to locate lost or stolen devices, lock them down or send out an alarm.

Location data also helps you when you’re traveling. If you want to know all about that old building in front of you, location data makes it possible to provide so-called augmented reality applications that do things such as show you historical information or tell you all about the shops and restaurants you can expect to find just up the street and maybe even offer you special deals.

To do these kinds of things our devices have to know where they are. That’s simply the technological trade off. The alternative? A pay phone if you can find one.

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