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If a regulatory change looks unlikely, though, there is a technical intervention that Apple and Google could make. To explain how, it’s worth getting into the nitty-gritty of the Spotify flap. One of the clauses that most worried users was the following:
Depending on the type of device that you use to interact with the Service and your settings, we may also collect information about your location based on, for example, your phone’s GPS location or other forms of locating mobile devices (e.g., Bluetooth).
The company says this access was needed for its new Running feature, announced in July, that monitored someone’s jogging pace and served them tunes appropriately. And when the company’s CEO, Daniel Ek, explained the new policy on Friday, he said that that type of data collection would always require a user’s permission:
We will never gather or use the location of your mobile device without your explicit permission. We would use it to help personalize recommendations or to keep you up to date about music trending in your area.
(Wired’s coverage, by the way, is revealing about how dissonant the tech industry’s thinking about privacy is right now: A feature described innocuously in Spotify’s “lovely” and “powerful” “hunt for the perfect playlist” on July 20 becomes, exactly a month later, something “eerie” that the user “can’t do squat about.”)
“The creepiness isn’t in using GPS for the running feature or whatever, it’s in asking for GPS access independent of a specific use,” he wrote. “In normal social interaction, you can tell someone where you are for a while without giving them ‘forever access’ to your location.”
To Seaver, this makes the case for “seamfulness” in design: Software should be asking for permission to use personal data more, not less. Currently, many designers aim for a “seamless” experience and take a set-it-and-forget-it approach to app privacy. The Facebook app on the iPhone, for instance, has to ask for permission the first time it tries to access the phone’s photos, camera, or GPS location—but once a user has given access, it never has to ask again. (“Seamlessness” as a goal resembles Facebook’s infamous “frictionless sharing.”)