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Apple changes privacy policy for location-based iOS services

by on22 June 2010

iOS 4 transmits location information to third parties
In a war of words and authoritative rights over the control of consumer information, Apple has recently updated its privacy policy in the new iOS 4 mobile software update to allow the sharing of geolocation data with partners and licensees from all its consumers who are desperate to install the new operating system on their devices. In a stealthily executed move that has been used by Google’s Android operating system for quite some time now, Apple hopes to potentially sell away its users’ location data to third party providers with the added benefit of tapping into a new revenue stream for its iAd platform. However, the company has made it crystal clear that all data will be transmitted anonymously and will be disclosed for location-based apps only.

Under the new legal framework, the company’s amended privacy policy reads as follows:

“To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.”

CNET has recently gone behind the scenes with Apple to inquire about the data collection process and the associated partnerships it has negotiated to licensees. The press giant is currently awaiting an official statement from internal company representatives and hopes to share their findings with the rest of the world – or whichever bits and pieces Apple’s head management decides to publicly disclose.

As several analysts have pointed out, however, some location-based services offered by Apple already require personal information to be transmitted over to the company. For instance, its MobileMe cloud service includes Find My iPhone, a feature that allows iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, iPhone 4 and iPad 3G users to track a lost handset using the device’s integrated AGPS radio while searching for it with a separate Apple mobile device. The mobile Safari web browser also features GPS-enabled web browsing which allows select websites to utilize an Apple mobile device’s geolocation software stack to find nearby locations based on proximity and allows Twitter users to embed location information into tweets.

However, the small bit of alarm doesn’t come from the Apple-based native applications that are integrated into its mobile operating system. The concern lies with giant data repositories and search giants Google and Microsoft, both of which share a presence in the App Store and have seen increasing market share in GPS-equipped iPhone and iPad models. With the inclusion of Google Maps as a native application featured in every version of iOS since the platform launched in summer 2007, the company has undoubtedly taken notice that iPhone and iPad users have become increasingly dependent on its free and convenient navigation services. According to Apple’s new privacy policies, however, Google may now be in the position to legally receive user location information whenever the Maps application is opened. For many iPhone and iPad users, this includes location information about the commute home from work, about the location of work, and about the location of the neighborhood, leisure areas and even the home. Of course, the average skeptic would probably disregard Google’s potential monopolistic power over its consumers’ locations, but it is important to consider just how dangerously complex the company’s datacenter algorithms have become at prediction-based efficiency, context awareness and other semantic clues over the past several years.

In other words, if you’re one of the thousands of iPhone owners who just recently installed iOS 4 on your shiny fruit-themed iPhone 3GS because the new multitasking support appealed to you, we highly suggest you take any precautions before running location-aware services with other apps sitting in idle background memory. Make sure you are aware that these applications have asked your consent to transmit your location to third-party software providers and certified Apple partners for their socioeconomic data collection purposes. Ultimately, it is the consumer’s responsibility to understand the nature of cloud-based services offered on attractive thin-client devices, including the Apple’s mobile product ecosystem. All in all, it's time to prepare for a future where the convenience of information streaming from unsuspecting “free” services may come at the expense and sacrifice of a cloud economy supported by an overcast legal framework with many uncertain shades of grey.

Last modified on 23 June 2010
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