CyberTech Rambler

April 27, 2011

Am I surprised that GPS-enabled phone log your location? Nope [Updated]

Filed under: Uncategorized — ctrambler @ 10:45 am

Ever since the news broke that Apple IOS devices store its user’s location, there has been a snowball effect where it is revealed that other phones do the same.

Am I surprised? Nope. To tell the truth, I don’t even think we need a GPS-enabled device, although having GPS will help a lot. One function of a standard cellphone is to communicate with several base-station and workout which one to use, which one to switch to (in case you are on the move and is losing contact with your original station). Keep a log of which station your phone is in communication with and  your phone have an approximate location of where you are. Moreover, if your phone does measure the signal strength from different stations, keeping this and you can work out approximately where you are. Your mobile operator will have the data. The first time I have confirmation of this is the Soham murder case where the Police used an active mobile phone to pin point the location of the suspect.  It is not as accurate as GPS because a lot of factor affect signals strength. However, when there is a will and determination, it can be done.

As for the snowball effect, it is only to be expected.

So what is left is which phone suffers the worst publicity. As of today, Microsoft Windows Phone. Microsoft confirm that the firm collects the data. It is a leap from storing the location data on the phone. It is always entirely possible that Andriod and iOS devices does the same, but so far we have no proof of it. Even with the file on the phone (or host computer in the case of iOS), it can be access either by a technician downloading the data from the phone directly, or via host computer’s ethernet connection. If it turn out that Andriods and iOS devices do this, then they would be better following Microsoft example and come clean with it.

It is normally small little thing like location tracking that has the explosive power to bring privacy issues to the attention of the public. I am not saying this is a bad thing. Just musing at the fact that things that bite you always come from the unexpected direction.

My guess is all companies are going to hide being the End User Agreement that informs you that their device do track you. Guess what? They know and I know this is at best a transparent and ultra-thin shield. When the media and public latch on to something, not even having a bullet-proof legal protection is going to help much.

One other thing: Characteristically, Apple’s PR machine is mum when it comes to bad news.

[Updated: same day] Apple’s response here.

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