With Geolocation, Apple Has Explaining to Do

Mark Zuckerberg can breathe a sigh of relief. Instead of Facebook or Google, Apple is subject to public ire over infringing the privacy of its users.

Apple has begun collecting and storing the "real-time geographic location" of users' iPhones, iPads and other Apple devices, Dave Sarno at the Los Angeles Times reported this week. Now, the co-chairmen of House Bi-Partisan Privacy Caucus, Massachusetts Democrat Ed Markey and Texas Republican Joe Barton, want Apple CEO Steve Jobs to clarify how that data will be collected, stored and distributed. The company says the data is anonymous and does not personally identify users, but Sarno reports that "analysts have shown, however, that large, specific data sets can be used to identify people based on behavior patterns."

Because of the massive advertising potential of location-based marketing, it makes sense that Apple would want to customize its iAds to location-specific businesses and brands. But some tech writers are frustrated by the ambiguity of how the data will be distributed. In the updated version of its privacy policy, Apple added a paragraph stating that once users agree, the company and unspecified "partners and licensees" can collect and store user location data.

Another concern is the forceful introduction of Apple's geolocation data collection system. Unless users agree to the terms outlined in Apple's updated privacy policy, they lose access to the applications and media available from the iTunes store: let your information be distributed, or forgo access to thousands of applications and services that make Apple products worth owning. With the device's owners effectively forced to agree, the issue of how Apple will ensure anonymity is a key concern and one of the nine questions Reps. Markey and Barton want addressed by July 12.

Apple claims that the data will remain anonymous and will not be used to identify individual users, but such "anonymized" systems of data storage are far from foolproof. In 2006, AOL released the search log data of some 685,000 users. While the data had been anonymized in AOL's research database, individual users could be easily identified by backtracking through their individual search logs. In 2007, Wired's Ryan Singel highlighted the use of ISPs to track down individual users and determine political or consumer preferences, despite the use of anonymized data. AT&T's iPad security breach from earlier this month is equally as disconcerting, highlighting the fact that despite Apple's legal promises, it's partners remain vulnerable.

With a geolocation advertising boom on the horizon, chances are Apple's new location-based data collection policy will not be out of the news for long.

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Jared Keller is a former associate editor for The Atlantic and The Atlantic Wire and has also written for Lapham's Quarterly's Deja Vu blog, National Journal's The Hotline, Boston's Weekly Dig, and Preservation magazine. 

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