Apple and the Ethics of Indiscretion

Which is worse: That your iPhone is tracking your every move without you knowing about it, or that this little feature was corporate accident? Apple better come up with a reason other than, “We didn’t mean to.”

Lawmakers are clamoring for an explanation that has yet to be forthcoming. New York Times’ David Pogue says the whole tracking thing just isn’t that big a deal: What else should we expect? In fact, the computer programmers who discovered it first thought the whole thing was rather nifty, at least until they realized that other people might be able to follow them. It’s not just that the data is being collected; it’s that the data is unprotected, unencrypted, unprotected, uneverything.

Perhaps spouses tracking errant partner’s iPhone whereabouts seems minor, but ITPro notes the trackers may also leave iPhone users more vulnerable to cyber thieves. But we really don’t know. We don’t know the intent Apple developers had any more than we know what the tracker might be capable of doing. Apple at the moment is oddly silent.

Privacy International director Simon Davies posted an Open Letter to Steve Jobs asking for transparency on Apple’s privacy policies, particularly in light of this tracking surprise. The London-based group’s deputy director Gus Hosein put it best: “Apple seriously screwed up here …  I don’t know how, but over the years, location data has suddenly become fair game.” And, that location data can be “very, very dangerous information to be collecting, particularly in such a haphazard way.”

Foursquare allows us to pick and choose when we tell friends where we are, and we at least get a coffee discount for the privilege of sharing. The lack of control is what is so troubling. Neilson reports today more than half of smartphone users are concerned about the privacy violations in location tracking, and that data was collected before the iPhone story broke.

Maybe we should expect to be followed. But it would be good to know whether those who are following us, actually know what they are doing.

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