Mobile Phone Geo-Tracking Means You Can Run, but You Can't Hide

News Analysis: Apple and Google apparently track your every move, which may be highly tacky, but it doesn't really change anything.

The latest revelation about Apple's apparent practice of recording your iPhone's location periodically and then sending the information to the Apple mother ship has a lot of people disturbed.

For some reason, nobody seems as disturbed that Google is doing the same thing with its Android phones, perhaps because most people knew that Google was already doing some kind of location tracking when it drove around taking pictures and collecting WiFi information.

Apple apparently collects the information and saves it in a file, which is then stored on your computer when you sync your iPhone or iPad. Android devices do something similar, although it's not clear that they store anything on your computer. These locations and their respective time stamps are sent to Apple and Google, respectively. It's not clear what either company does with this information.

It does not appear that Research In Motion collects such information on its BlackBerry devices, but that might only mean that no one seems to have found that they do. I don't know that anyone knows for sure what Microsoft or Nokia might do with location information if they collect it, or whether anyone cares.

But even if Apple and Google only use this information in some sort of aggregated reporting, which won't present a privacy issue, it's clear that others are using it. There are already rumors, for example, that in Michigan the police routinely download this location information even during traffic stops. Michigan State Police recently denied that they routinely download mobile phone location data.

On the other hand, federal immigration officials and the Transportation Security Administration have acknowledged that they have the right to download information on devices, including phones, and that they have done so. A number of companies are making products to allow such location retrieval easily, and they're selling it to law-enforcement agencies. This means that such retrieval is certainly taking place outside of Michigan.

Because of this, privacy advocates are upset, and they should be. This kind of tracking of one's movements in the absence of some kind of court order seems to be a violation of privacy rights. Unfortunately, it's not forbidden by law, so until it is, you may not be able to do much about it.

Worse, it's not clear that it matters. If someone wants to know where you are, and you have a cell phone, they can find you with varying degrees of accuracy, depending on your carrier and whether you have a GPS unit installed in your device. In other words, the government can find you, just like you see them do in those endless cop shows.

What's worse is that other people can find you as well. One colleague who counsels women in abusive relationships reports that those abusers can locate their victims even when they've taken refuge in a shelter or a safe house. I don't have any specific cases to point to, but it does bring up some horrific images.

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...