Apple Blows Opportunity to Spin Location Services Controversy


The stupid continues to burn around the discovery of a "secret file" on iOS devices that apparently tracks one's location. The consolidated.db file, the existence of which became public on April 20, appears to record one's position from time to time. Although the data in the file is reported to be imprecise and occasionally flat-out wrong, it's right to be concerned by the possibility that this is part of a vast conspiracy by Apple, as part of the One World Movement, to track the whereabouts of every person in America.

Wait a second; I dropped my chalk. Now, what was I saying? Something about stupid snooping rumors?

A wise person once pointed out that a corollary to Occam's Razor could read: "Never attribute to malice what is likely due to incompetence." That's all I want to believe is going on in this case: the engineers at Apple responsible for developing the location services neglected to remember that people might have a problem with such a record being kept on a mobile device.

If anyone comes to me with a complaint about how their iPads and iPhones are tracking them, I must remember to ask them if they remember the part about how the blasted things have GPS built-in. I'm going to ask them if they've ever used an iPhone app to get directions. I won't berate them, or ask them if they read the iTunes user agreement, because the only people who read those things are the folks charged with drafting them. But I will wonder out loud why they thought that a device with GPS on it wasn't tracking their whereabouts.

I just looked at an iPhone 4 that I'm using and of the few dozen apps that I have on it, maybe nine use location services, but not all of them have that function enabled. For example, the CBC doesn't need to know where I am when I'm getting my news fix on. On the other hand, it's useful for a mapping application to know where I am, especially when I'm wondering about directions, or where the J-Church could possibly be.

I even have a reasonable solution: I'm not sure why my apps would need to have my location data for anything beyond the last 24 hours, so why not dump any location data more than a day old? On the other hand, I can see where a broader range of data might be useful to me, or others.

But since "useful to others" could easily become "harmful to me," I'm going to hope that Apple's developers are being told to spend the coming week working on an iOS patch that culls the location database, with a degree of user control that ranges from the paranoid (keep location data for no more than an hour) to the who-cares (keep all location data) option.

Is Apple handling this poorly? Perhaps; but this looks like simple carelessness at worst. What is in all likelihood a simple case of an engineer not seeing past his or her immediate assignment has the potential to blow up in the company's face; I understand that a few governments in Europe are not too pleased at what appears to be a violation of their laws concerning data collection and transmission.

So since I'm feeling helpful today, here's a couple more suggestions for Apple: first, get the PR people out there to tell us that all is well, that no personally-identifiable data is collected, that no personally-identifiable data is transmitted without the user's consent, and that Apple is continuously working on ways to improve its products and make them more useful to ordinary people. It doesn't have to be true, but it would be a pleasant change of pace to see the flacks in Cupertino get out in front of a problem for a change.

Second, and this goes a lot deeper than a press release or a software patch, is for Apple's executives, managers and engineers to start thinking about things that impinge on a user's privacy (like location services) from a most-restrictive viewpoint, instead of the company's current gee-whiz "we got it to work!" approach.