Big Brother: not just the government, anymore.

As sure “as the day follows night,” Apple has been sued for its iPhone location tracking.

Whether the suit survives a summary judgment motion is another question.

Last week the Wall Street Journal told the world that Apple and Google were tracking location data from iPhones and HTC Androids (respectively). It was a step towards accessing what the WSJ called a $2.9 billion dollar market.

They aren’t the only ones who want access to that money, either. This week, we saw a lawsuit from opportunists looking to hitch a ride on the gravy train.

It’s almost as American as apple pie. Combine deep pockets with an easy excuse for a lawsuit, and you get opportunists popping up to sue in about as much time as it takes an attorney to draw up the papers, spell check it, and file it with a court.

Whether or not the lawsuit will hold water is another issue entirely. Devin Coldewey opined, about at least one of the claims in the suit, that suing may be a  bit premature:

Claim 12, for instance: “Apple collects the location information covertly, surreptitiously and in violations of law.” I’m not saying this isn’t the case, but when this information was only announced on the 20th, they seem a bit quick on the draw to decide that it’s “covert” as opposed to “undocumented,” like many files and features. It doesn’t take a lawyer to come up with mitigating circumstances or arguments that could potentially exonerate Apple. Use your imagination.

He has a point, and even if he doesn’t, there hasn’t seemed to be a ton of outcry about it. Apple’s iPhone users blithely ignored the news, or, rather, noted it and responded with a resounding “Meh.” They like their phones far more than they are worried about their privacy, and as a result, they just don’t care.

Either that, or they trust big Apple and big Google far more than they do the government. As one writer noted, this is not Nineteen Eighty-four:

Apple has absolutely nothing to do with any of this [1984 type privacy invasion]. It never will. Assuming it does anything, Apple does nothing with your information that should concern you unless you are an overly-anxious grandparent flirting with dementia, incredibly paranoid, wholly misguided, or involved in some type of illegal activity. First, I think companies like Apple and Google have high standards, plus they could care less where you are outside of selling you something else you don’t need. And don’t forget, it’s in their best interest to appear “cool” to a generation of hipsters who fashion themselves on being anti-everything, particularly government.

To top it all off, anything Apple or Google does to you, it probably does with your consent. You’re not a victim. You’re just part of an amazingly lazy society. Lazy because the terms of service and registration documents are way too long to spend fifteen minutes reading. And lazy because it’s easier to moan about Apple’s and Google’s minutia than it is to actually do something, as a society, about the real threats to privacy we all face.

The attitude of faith and trust strikes me as a bit “blind” but I don’t think it is uncommon. Apple, and Google, have created some incredible pieces of technology, and their users are very devoted.

And yet, it is ironic, isn’t it? Just weeks after we found out that Jeffery Immelt’s GE wasn’t paying taxes due to loopholes his lobbyists had persuaded legislators to put into law ,and with full knowledge that Google and Apple execs donate on a far higher rate to the Left than to the Right, AND just days after President Obama made a special trip to visit Facebook HQ, folks are ok with saying: We can trust Apple and Google not to share their data with the government. But it isn’t the government alone that we should be watching and wary about.

Maybe we can trust them. But maybe we can’t. In the end, I think that we cam probably expect business to do what is in business’s interest. If that means using the data to make money, then we can expect that if they can, they will do that.  If that means giving access to the data to the government, then I think it is entirely likely that there are scenarios where that would happen.

A healthy skepticism is in due course when we have large, rich companies collecting incredibly valuable information at almost no cost to themselves. It has nothing to do with the political slant of the executives of those companies. It’s just common sense.

At the same time, it may be as much a snafu as it is a nefarious plot to make more money. Looking closer at Apple (and ignoring Google for the moment, since it is Apple that has been sued), it may be that the policy is not completely intentional, but rather a bit conflicting. As Coldewey notes, Apple has “dueling” policies. In the iPhone 4 SLA, Apple allows users to withdraw consent for location tracking. On the other hand, the iTunes/App Store TOS states that Apple may collect location data to improve the customer experience.

So which is it?

Either way, the data is being collected and likely will be used. If such is the case, users should make themselves informed about how and consider whether they support that use.

Further, companies that are collecting user location data should provide users with the option to “hide” themselves, whether by making the data anonymous or by “opting out” of the collection altogether. Google allows such controls for its online tools; why not for mobile devices?

You can read the lawsuit here.

(h/t David Coldeway)


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