Several months ago, I asked in this column, “At what point will we finally have enough surveillance cameras? It’s hard to go anywhere without being watched by at least one, and often several, closed-circuit eyes in the sky.”
Well, as it turns out, there’s no longer any need to worry about external technology spying on us. Thanks to the intrepid work of two British techies named Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, we now know that we’re spying on ourselves.
Last week, Allan and Warden revealed that every iPhone and iPad contain hidden software that records and stores a person’s location history, which is then uploaded to the user’s hard drive when the device is synced. The software cannot be disabled by the user, nor can the data be deleted.
“It’s unclear (why Apple put such software on its devices),” Allan and Warden wrote on their website. “One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s pure speculation. The fact that it’s transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn’t accidental.”
Seeing ahead to the obvious uses of such stored data, the two go on to add that, “by passively logging your location without your permission, Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements.”
But it’s not just people with something to hide who should worry. By allowing easy access to a person’s whereabouts, Apple may have seriously compromised the safety of its customers — especially now that it’s well known that a record of their movements exists in easily accessible form.
In a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn.,, wrote: “The existence of this information — stored in an unencrypted format — raises serious privacy concerns. … Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken over the past months or even a year.” Just imagine — all of that information, just a stolen phone or a government subpoena away.
Some greet this kerfuffle with a shrug. So what? they ask. Isn’t privacy dead anyway? After all, electronic devices record a host of personal information, from phone records to e-mails, financial secrets to medical files. Even if your computer or phone doesn’t collect it, there’s one of those cameras watching you at any given time. It’s just the way the world is, they say — get used to it.
I’m sorry, but I don’t think this is acceptable — not in a nation with civil rights. At least one can argue that cameras have the countervailing benefit of deterring or helping solve crimes. But what possible justification can a corporation have for gathering such data?
Something to think about next time we’re standing in line at the Apple store to buy the latest iPhone.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives.