The Apple iPhone location controversy: some analysis

One of the reasons for this blog is to examine how geographical knowledges are (or can become) open and conversely this has sometimes meant seeing how they are closed. To date, I have looked at this question in terms of government, and especially my focus on secret intelligence, but the recent controversy over Apple’s iPhone collecting your location data reminds us that corporate data geographies are also important.

As people have looked into this and done some analysis, some interesting things have come to light:

1. Actually this file and this practice was well known in the Apple community, even appearing in a book by Alex Levinson (see also a followup by Alex here).

2. Peter Batty makes the point that this is likely related to mobile services of the modern smartphone and that this controversy is Apple’s “Googlegate” where the latter was inadvertently collected location data during StreetView; however there is some evidence that this data IS sent to Apple rather than just stored locally

3. As support for this, apparently other smartphones such as Android also collect location data

4. Peter’s point that the data collected are not precise locations (“my conclusion remains that this data doesn’t reveal where you’ve been with any degree of accuracy”) is not dispositive. It would be easy enough to write a program to infer your location given the cell phone towers polled by your phone. Indeed, at the VGI Pre-conference at the AAG, HwaHwan Kim, a researcher at Oak Ridge Labs reported on a functionality (pdf), called “negative quadtrees,” that can do the opposite: hide location but retain user attributes. It works by collecting information on all the places people’s phones indicate they are not in. Presumably it would be just as easy to write variants on this that did not perform this reversal but inferred locational likelihood.

This concept, called Precise Geolocational Information (PGI), is the subject of two bills before Congress. A recent court ruling in California prevented PGI from being collected and defined it as the zip code, far larger than Batty’s implicit definition of “precise” (a few blocks).

Conclusion: user location is coming to the forefront of people’s awareness as an issue. Whether PGI, these stories about the iPhone, or German Green Party’s Malte Spitz, the takeaway here is that geolocation is a critical issue of modern life. A mobile phone is least of all that: as Alex Levinson says “your phone is your second wallet” containing all sorts of data about you. Opening up our knowledge of the geographies it and other devices contain is an ongoing task for open geographers.

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