When news came out that Apple iPhones were tracking our whereabouts, people were outraged. Once the dust settled, some of that outrage turned out to be misplaced; Apple said that data is collected anonymously. Nonetheless, the news has reignited the debate over technology and privacy, and has forced us to examine where our personal boundaries lie.
How location services work
To be able to give you directions or what's around you, Apple has a database of Wi-Fi networks that it uses to triangulate your location. So if your Apple device connects with three hotspots in your location, Apple narrows your immediate location to the nearest IP address.
Devices like the iPhone track your whereabouts via location-based services and then keep that data in an unsecure file format on your device. If you sync your device to any computer, then that computer has your data, which can also be accessed. If you lose your device, anyone who finds it can see where you've been in the last year, from when the operating system with this capability was released. Where you are, and where you've been, are laid bare to anyone with access to your device.
Location-based services are a huge convenience
Sounds terrible, doesn't it? Look at the situation from another view: People want the location services their devices provide. According to Apple, the company was simply responding to increasing consumer demand for location services like directions, locating friends, or finding restaurants. After all, who hasn't been lost, hungry, or almost out of gas? Cell phones with location capability can literally save your life in situations like these.
Location-based services aren't the only ways you are tracked
Even though some of your information, albeit anonymous, might be tracked without your knowledge, the vast majority of people knowingly broadcast at least some personal imformation—by creating a social media profile or making an online purchase, as just two examples. Every time you log in to surf the net, you are tracked in one form or another. Here are a few examples:
- Internet service providers (ISPs). Services such as AT&T/Yahoo, Comcast, or EarthLink, can match your personal details with your unique internet address. Some ISPs have been known to monitor your online activity to target you for certain advertisements
- Search queries. ISPs and/or search engine companies can track and save consumer search queries
- Cookies. Web pages you visit can download cookies onto your machine that track your browsing history
- Operating systems. Your own computer logs data of your Internet use. If your machine is exposed to a third party—legitimately or not—that party can learn the websites you frequent, the time of day you are likey to read emails, and with which banks you hold accounts
And some people don't care at all about privacy, broadcasting their whereabouts openly and constantly via Facebook or Foursquare.
U.S. laws to protect personal information cannot keep pace with advances in technology
The Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA) was enacted in 1986 to protect individual privacy. New technology quickly put it to the test. Though the law makes it unlawful for an Internet service provider to reveal information contained in electronic communications, the privacy of such communications is negated either if a user consents or if the government submits a valid subpoena to the ISP. If, for example, information is sought under the 2001 PATRIOT Act, restrictions on government information-gathering are even less stringent than usual.
Though many proponents of privacy advocate strict government regulation, the fact remains that technology develops faster by far than the legislative process. Some argue that coregulation between the government and the technology industry is the only realistic way to guard privacy.
What you can do to protect your personal information
If you are concerned about protecting your privacy, you can take steps to limit the kind and amount of electronic information compiled about you.
For mobile devices, you can turn off location services in the settings menu. You can also encrypt backups of your data when you sync your device to your computer. Also, it's a good idea to use a password to lock your device in case it's ever lost or stolen.
For computers, you can regularly clear your cache to erase your browsing history. You can also deactivate cookies, which send information to and from your machine to an origin browser. However, expect to see a reduction in convenience in exchange for these protections: without a memory of prior searches, activities, and preferences, your device and computer will take longer to deliver search results and will be less tailored to your individual preferences. This means that if you spend ten minutes searching for a website, then clear your cache, you may need to repeat your search the next time you want that site.
As technology provides us with more and more conveniences, the way we think of privacy will necessarily change. As technology improves and our desire for convenience grows accordingly, what we think of now as “privacy” may become a relic. And we might not even care.