3G iPhone and location privacy

An article from New York magazine rediscovers the age-old problem of location privacy in mobile devices. Titled iTagged: get ready for the stalkverse the alarmist piece vividly attempts to describe the dangers of having everyone else learn about our location:

Technology was certainly not supposed to know you were at the laundromat. Or the Yankees game. Or your co-worker’s apartment when you were supposed to be working late. But now when you’re at the laundromat, everyone will know.

All true but this is not a new problem being introduced by the iPhone. It is not even being aggravated by the phone having GPS. Global Positioning System sounds like a very neat feature but remains largely a red herring from the privacy point of view, because it is neither necessary or sufficient for tracking. It is not necessary because mobile operators have been legally required by FCC to be capable of locating their subscribers based on triangulating a position from cell phone towers. Dubbed enhanced-911 or E911 these regulations had a very simple objective: knowing where to send the ambulance, fire engine and police car when a 911 call is received. While the USA lagged and to this day continues to lag Europe and Japan in wireless adoption, the FCC correctly predicted that in the future more and more calls would be placed over phones that were not bound to a fixed location that could be looked up in the phone directory.

Not surprisingly the reception was mixed. Privacy advocates feared that they could be used for tracking individuals without oversight. (One ancient article from Infoworld points out that judges must approve any law enforcement access to location data.) Public safety groups pointed to scenarios when E911 was used to locate individuals in kidnapping cases and even urge users to change the settings on their phone to enable location at all times. These regulations were phased in over time, requiring that 95% of handsets sold in 2005 must be capable of radiolocation. Considering that the average lifetime of a handset is 18 months, a reasonable assumption is that all phones in use today support the feature. No GPS required.

GPS is also not enough because it requires line of sight to satellites– forget about it working indoors– and can be frustratingly slow to develop an initial fix. At best GPS adds to tracking capabilities when the subscriber is attending Burning Man, out of the range of cell phone towers. Of course without reception the phone has no way to report back the location to the would-be-stalkers in real time, but presumably it could store that  information for future upload when the handset has service again.

Where the iPhone could have a disruptive effect is the integration of the feature and its social acceptability. Some handsets today allow using the phone for driving directions, with real-time position information, placing the carriers in direct competition with the dedicated GPS units such as Garmin.  A few carriers such as Nextel directly advertise tracking as a feature for fleet management. These are strictly business applications; phones are carried by employees in charge of some asset that is owned by the company and the intention is tracking the asset more than the individual. Poster child is the trucking company with 18 wheelers criss-crossing the country that wants to know exactly where each truck is so they can re-route the one closest to Dubuque to pick up another load.

iPhone is strictly a consumer technology and one that defines the cutting edge. The moment a popular application comes along that requires the user to opt-in to location tracking, it will create social pressure for others to do the same. It will define the new standard for what is “acceptable” for location privacy. This is the main takeaway from the article:

Because you’ll be letting them know. Maybe not yet; you’re still shy, and think the laundromat is boring. But in a year or two, when everyone is doing it, that shyness will start to seem stupid. It will begin to seem rude not to tell—I mean, what’s wrong with the laundromat?

And some predictions for awkward consequences:

The initial etiquette screwups are going to be exquisite: not just the stalking, but the brand-new form or snubbing where you can see your friends gathering without you. You’ll feel wildly self-conscious for about six months. But soon it’s all going to seem normal and automatic.

Such a race-to-the-bottom is not unknown in privacy. The moment people started putting their personal lives up for display on Facebook, it created a pressure on others to become even more transparent. How long until there is a Facebook gadget that charts your location on a map? Forget about Dopplr and depending on the user to diligently report their wanderings; the next web 2.0 application with no regard for privacy can tap into that information straight from the iPhone.


Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s