Sunday, April 24, 2011


No one who has been paying any attention will have been surprised to learn that Apple monitors and tracks the way in which people use its devices. The terms and conditions to which all iTunes users subscribe explicitly state that Apple reserves the right to monitor how people use its products, gathering location, text, audio, video and contact data, in order to improve its services.

What has surprised some is the slipshod fashion in which Apple has acted with respect to data security. Storing detailed geophysical data with precise timestamps in an unencrypted file on every iPhone is irresponsible in the extreme and indicative of the lack of care large corporations take in protecting the privacy of individual users.

Last year, Google ran into trouble when it became clear that as part of its StreetView project, the company had also engaged in extensive WiFi snooping. The UK Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, initially accepted Google's claims that it scanners had not picked up anything valuable, before being embarrassed by his European counterparts who took this intentional breach of personal privacy much more seriously. Upon reopening the case it was discovered that, contary to Google's prior assertion, it had indeed hoovered up whole emails, passwords and other personally sensitive information. The Information Commissioner's Office (ICO) subsequently declared that this constituted a "significant breach" of the Data Protection Act. However, there was no further investigation into the internal working practices that lead to a Fortune 500 company "mistkenly" collecting payload data from unencrypted wireless networks. This was an ugly situation, the response to which was far from adequate.

In the case of Apple, the situation is much, much worse. An iPhone is a personal computing device, capable of gathering intimate information about a person's movements, their relationships with others and their private day-to-day activities. What we have to ask and what the Apple incident should bring to public attention and scrutiny is: how much information should Apple and other such mobile computing companies (including Microsoft and Google) be allowed to keep about their users and share with their partners? What regulations need to be introduced in order to limit the commercial incentives that are leading successful internet companies to adopt ever more intrusive business models which demand users hand over ever more of their sensitive (not to mention highly valuable) personal data.

One argument put forward by those that defend this manner of flagrant intrusion into people's private lives is the 'freedom to choose' defence. Nobody forces anybody else to sign up to Facebook. This is, of course, true. However, I would question whether or not the people who sign up to services like Facebook, or who use smartphones, are aware of, or have understood, the amount of information the service provider collects, or the extent to which they are volunteering to be spied upon. I would go so far as to venture that the majority of the people who sign up to use these services would be quite creeped out by the detailed user profiles corporations such as Apple, Google, Facebook and others, keep on their users.

What can be done? Certainly, I have been deeply heartened to see that Privacy International is already preparing possible legal action against Apple in several of the countries. I think it is important that this kind of flagrant intrusion into people's privacy become a much bigger issue. People in power need to know that this is not good enough and that we (the users) will not stand for it. There should be incentives (possibly commercial) for companies that respect and protect user data and individual privacy. And privacy, as a whole, needs to be taken much more seriously by individuals, organisations, corporations and governments. The technologies that are now remaking the world threaten to incalcate us in a permanent surveillance society. But before Silicon Valley companies take us too much further down a route that prioritises their interests and possibly not the rest of society at large, we need to stop and think about the kind of world in which we want to live, because to shrug and say, "This is just the way things are; how else do you expect a for-profit corporation to behave?" is simply no longer good enough. This is too important and something has to change.