Google Explains Phone Tracking, Apple Stays Mum

Google Explains Phone Tracking, Apple Stays Mum

Google addressed concerns about location data collected from Android phones while Apple remained silent, as the debate around mobile device privacy continues.

“We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices,” a Google spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.

The “opt-in” is a bit sneaky, though. When first setting up a phone, users are warned that by using location-enabled apps like Google Maps, they are consenting to send location data to Google at any time, even when those apps aren’t in use.

Google repeated that the location data it collects is anonymized, despite earlier reports that it contains a unique identifier tied to the phone. Google said that identifier is tied to location rather than the handset. However, the company also noted that the number can be changed by performing a “factory reset” of the device, implying that the number remains consistent until that happens, which effectively makes it an ID number for the phone.

Meanwhile, Apple issued no comments responding to a furor over the revelation that its phones and 3G-enabled tablets keep a running tally of where they’ve been. Apple has publicly acknowledged that its iOS devices send location data to the company in the past, but the discovery by researchers that the products keep a history of a person’s movements on board that could stretch back for a year or more raised concerns last week.

It was also revealed that this location database has been an open secret in the law enforcement and computer forensics communities at least since last year, and that they have reportedly been exploiting it for evidence of individuals’ movements.

The dust-up around the privacy implications of these practices may drive both legislators and the mobile industry to increase transparency about how location data is stored and used — though if Apple’s early reaction is any indication, some players may simply assume that the whole thing will blow over and people will keep using their devices as blissfully as ever.

Location data has legitimate uses that aren’t particularly privacy sensitive if the information is truly anonymized: it can be sifted to provide traffic data for navigation apps and to map Wi-Fi access points to allow for quick location fixes, for example.

However, the potential for invasive marketing profiling, as well as the possibility of the data being subpoenaed in a legal proceeding, means that the devil is in the details of how exactly such data is used and stored.

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