The Apple, android scandal: separation of identity and location is the norm we need

Posted on: April 30, 2011

Mobile phones could always track where we are via our service providers. So the latest scandal about collection of location data cannot really be that ‘they’ know where we are… but rather that a different set of ‘them’ now have this information too.

The major issue is the tracking and storage of location data that relates to individuals – because even if the company storing it has no malign intentions, they could be forced to hand it over to state authorities that do.

Attention on android and Apple’s use of location data then, will be useful is if the wider debate spawns norms and legislation for network carriers as well as application service providers, to operate according to the principle articulated on the Google Public Policy blog, that:

identification can be helpful or even necessary for certain services, while optional or unnecessary for others

Two red herrings on this issue are:

  1. Complaints about collection of data that has been completely anonymised – this is harmless to privacy if done well and could be very useful for all kinds of public and commercial purposes – traffic planning, event organising, sustainability, etc.
  2. The ‘if you don’t like it, turn it off’ argument – people should not be faced with an all or nothing choice. We need to be able to use location-aware services and information without our movements being unnecessarily stored.
cartoon from xkcd

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