Location Tracking is not Spying

Yesterday’s twitter stream is punctuated with big brother sentiment about the storage of non-personal location data on the mobile device and in backups stored on the computer used to sync. Much of the discussion seemed to criticize Apple for storing the data and for not being really clear about it in their user agreement. There are a few things I find disappointing about this discussion.

1. Access to Raw Data

While it’s true that the information is stored on the device, it is nearly impossible for any malicious party to gain access to this information. First, there’s the concern about accessing it directly on the device. An app developer could conceivably access the file, but I’d bet the farm that Apple will reject any app that attempts to open the file. That basically means the only way to access the information is for you to build your own app, install it on your own device, and subsequently fuck yourself over. That potential exists, regardless of technology. You could easily push yourself in front of a bus, mail yourself some anthrax, etc. As the expression goes, “you can’t fix stupid.”

Another way to gain access is to find the file in the device backup, made whenever the device syncs with a computer. Again, this means the malicious party has access to your computer, which probably contains substantially more sensitive information (social security number, bank account details, passwords, etc), so the location data from your mobile is the least of your concerns. The only other way to gain access is to dig into a Time Machine backup. Similarly, if someone has this level of access, you’re fucked anyway.

2. Precision

The raw location data is not a precise or accurate time-stamped latitude/longitude coordinate of your device. It is instead a log of weight values indicating the probability that the device was near a given point on a grid (presumably either in minutes or seconds of lat/lon). As a point of reference for those who are not experts in geospatial terminology, a one second grid has points about every 31m (100ft) at sea level. Given the precision information available to legitimate developers and personal experience with Core Location, you’re lucky if you can resolve location with 3sec (100m / 330ft) accuracy.

Put simply, it is not possible to derive from this information precisely where a device was, is, or will be. It would not be possible, for example, to determine whether your device was at the Gap or Banana Republic. It might be possible to say you were at the mall, but that’s about it.

3. Identity

Remember that the raw location data shows only the possible location of the device, not its owner. This alone is not enough information to be dangerous. While the device does have a unique identifier, it would not be possible to determine with any certainty whether the device is in the owner’s possession. I realize this is the weakest of these four points, as there are a few other things we might use to increase our certainty that the device is indeed being carried by its owner. For example, twitter posts made from the device could provide sufficient evidence. Even that, though, is somewhat dubious.

4. Self-Reporting

Let’s not forget that in the age of Foursquare, GoWalla, Twitter, Facebook, and all the other social networks that allow (and even encourage) location tagging, we are our own big brother. Joe DeSetto wrote about this last year in his post, titled Social Location Is Creepy. With the growing trend of publishing not just what we’re doing, but where we’re doing it, I’m baffled by the outrage exhibited by so many people over this latest big brother meme.

Your mobile device may contain more information about your location than you realized, but it’s not enough to derive anything meaningful, nor is it accessible to anyone but you. More importantly, it doesn’t fucking matter when you’re announcing your location (and personal preference) to the world at large by checking in at Mons Venus. And if you’re the mayor, you’re telling the world so much more than they could ever glean from mining your location log.

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