On the wrong track over iPhone privacy

Campaigners should worry less about gadgets recording our locations and more about why society doesn't value privacy.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

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Anyone who has watched TV shows like 24, Without A Trace or Spooks will know that a mobile phone can give away an individual’s location. So, if you’re on the run from a mole-ridden counter-terrorist unit, if you’re trying to stop bent cops getting hold of you, or if you’re trying to elude MI6, remember: always dump your mobile phone.

Reports over the last few days have given the conspiracy-thriller scenario a rather more mundane twist. It seems that it’s not just corrupt officials or bent secret agents that might want to use our mobile phones to track our movements; the bods at every major mobile phone operating system manufacturer, from Apple to Google, have been doing it for ages. And we, the gullible public, were only dimly aware of it.

On Thursday last week, it emerged that on every iPhone and iPad, a secret file was recording each user’s locations at regular intervals. Taken over a period of months, this amounts to a record of our movements, made accessible to Apple. In the words of Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, the two British researchers who discovered the file, ‘after we dug further and visualised the extracted data, it became clear that there was a scary amount of detail on our movements’. Since the Apple story broke, it has become clear that Google and Microsoft do something similar with their mobile operating systems. That is, using cellphone towers and wifi access points to correlate our positions, they not only map our movements, they store them, too. If used together with other applications and internet services, it might be possible to build up a relatively complex picture of an individual’s activities. Whether Apple and friends intend to do so is unclear.

As it stands, the main problem with Apple, Google and Microsoft’s behaviour, it seems, is that they didn’t really ask us if they could record the location data. Yes, there is a clause buried in the service contract agreements, but given these documents’ length, it is hardly surprising that very few bothered to read that far before ticking the ‘I agree’ box. So instead of appearing open about recording location data – the collection of which probably wouldn’t have concerned too many of us – the companies appeared surreptitious. Given the subsequent outcry, it’s a decision Apple, in particular, is probably regretting.

Republican congressman Edward Markey called for a congressional investigation. Clearly feeling that bluster about privacy was not exciting enough, he invoked the threat of paedophiles hacking into children’s phones to discover their daily routines. Likewise, Preston Grella writing in Computer World felt there was a danger that a nefarious individual could hack into the file and use details of our toing-and-froing for god-knows-what evil end. ‘For those who value their privacy, this can be a frightening thing’, he writes. In the Guardian meanwhile, columnist John Harris was content to imagine the totalitarian implications of such clouds of private data: ‘This cloud, I fear, may yet turn very dark.’

Yet despite the rather desperate attempts to turn this into something of which We Should Be Very Afraid, it’s unlikely that many people will dump their mobile phones like an innocent man on the run. ‘[W]hy aren’t we worried?’ asks John Harris plaintively. His reasoning for the lack of public outcry is that the public have been – for want of a better word – duped. Whether it’s Google’s cuddly image, Bill Gates’s humanitarian work, or Apple’s dedication to users’ convenience, we just can’t see the authoritarian evil for the tricksy PR and branding.

There is another, less conspiratorial reason for the lack of outcry and that’s that privacy just isn’t valued much today. Quite the opposite, in fact. The person who keeps himself to himself is viewed not respectfully but suspiciously. ‘If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to fear’ has long been a mantra, at least in the UK, for a state that thinks nothing of covering streets with closed-circuit television, demanding that anyone who works with children has to prove themselves not to be a child abuser, and urging us to be on the look out for potential terrorists.

And while successive governments have rendered privacy a vice, culturally we’ve never been more willing to consider ‘letting it all hang out’ to be a virtue. From Facebook to Twitter, from reality TV to public confessions, exposing one’s interior life to all and sundry now comes with a cultural seal of approval. To bite one’s lip, to withhold an outpouring, is seen at best as repression and at worst as a sign of guilt. Microsoft or Apple, if so inclined, wouldn’t need to spy on us to get an idea of our daily activity, they could just follow us on Twitter or befriend us on Facebook.

The problem for those who see a problem with a sneaky iPhone or a treacherous Android is that the state-sponsored, cultural devaluation of privacy has left its advocates to seek legal redress instead. In the US, Al Franken, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee on privacy, technology and the law, has already called for new legislation. But respect for an individual’s privacy cannot be legislated into existence. Rather, privacy can only ever be a social virtue, generated within a society that respects, not suspects, the autonomy of its members. Only then might a digital monolith like Apple or Google revise its rather blasé attitude towards its users’ private lives.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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