Location, location, location

Others have written lots of good stuff about the recent discovery that the iPhone keeps a log of your location and that this gets synced to your PC, where it can be found by those who know where to look. Many are shocked by the fact that it is stored in unencrypted form. And it’s not just the iPhone.

Now, personally, I am very pleased to have this information available and am thinking about the best ways to make use of it. I had been considering writing an iPhone app to do exactly this but was concerned about the likely implications to the battery life, so I’m delighted that I don’t need to bother.

Others’ opinions vary widely, however, about how this data might be abused. Some talk about how, because it’s unencrypted, the Feds (or the scary faceless organisation of your choice) could get hold of it if they broke into your home. Well, yes, but they have so many other ways of tracking you – credit cards, speed cameras and of course the triangulation information from your phone company, that breaking into your house seems a bit unnecessary. Others are worried, apparently, that their wives might be able to detect any little deceptions they may wish to keep secret. Such people have the sympathy they deserve.

But the real question for me is why location information causes such concern.

Did you know that Apple also produces another very sinister product? It gathers all your personal secret communications from the cloud and stores it in – gasp! – unencrypted form on your hard disk! It’s called Mail – the email program. And if you fire up Skype, you can look back through those past Skype messages. And iCal will let someone browse your personal appointments!

So, of course, you stop these things by putting passwords on your computer, encrypting your home directory if you’re concerned, or making sure that only people you trust have access to your machine. This is what we’ve always done.

The only shocking thing about this situation is that many people didn’t know that physical location was one of the things that could be traced. For all I know my laptop and phone may keep a history of the MAC addresses of wifi base stations they have connected to, which can also be used to identify location. Does yours? And your email provider probably has a log of the IP addresses from which you’ve connected to pick up your mail, which can also be used to follow your movements. And who knows what someone, including your wife, might be able to deduce if they had a good look at your sat-nav.

I remember a stunned silence at a business breakfast a few months back when I pointed out to the assembled company that Vodafone knew when they broke the speed limit. They’d never thought of that.

Well, now you know.

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© Copyright Quentin Stafford-Fraser