You are here: Apple tracks and stores your location (and you let them)

by Matthew L. Schafer

In the midst of Apple’s iPhone 4 release, Congress is questioning whether Apple’s new privacy policy, which permits Apple to collect real-time geolocation information from users, is an infringement on consumers’ privacy rights.

The controversy began on June 21st, when Apple updated its privacy policy to include collecting information about consumers’ location.  The privacy policy reads in part:

We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.

Among other collectable information, Apple considers a consumer’s location “non-personal” information.  The privacy policy goes on to say that Apple and its partners may “share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device.” Despite Apple’s assertion that the collected information “does not permit direct association with any specific individual,” a recent study showed that similar types of information could be used to identify users and “to uncover… political preferences and other potentially sensitive information.”

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act, the 1986 law that is intended to protect consumer’s electronic privacy, is woefully antiquated critics say.  The law is currently under review. The antiquated law and the new privacy policy, which mandates users to opt-in in order to use application software, has consumer watchdogs and members of Congress concerned.

In a ZDNet article on Thursday, Sam Diez said “When you mess with the privacy of people and do so by forcing them into agreeing to terms that – let’s be honest about it – they’re not going to read, you’re inevitably going to get a knock on the door from the suits in Washington.”

Apple got a knock at their door on Thursday.  In a June 24th letter from Rep. Edward Markey [D-MA] and Rep. Joe Barton [R-TX], Apple CEO Steve Jobs was asked to explain the changes to the privacy policy.

After a change to its privacy policy, Jobs received a letter from Rep. Barton and Rep. Markey asking for clarification on new rules.

“We are concerned about the impact the collection of such data could have on the privacy of Apple’s customers,” Markey and Barton wrote.

While any resolution to the new policy will likely have to wait until after the July 12 reply deadline that Markey and Barton gave Jobs, consumer advocacy groups will continue pressuring Congress to act.  In a statement for the record, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, a public interest research organization, urged Congress to include in future legislation rules that “require that companies provide users with a simple and free means to refuse the processing of location data.”  For now it’s wait and see, but one way or another, Congress will eventually have to reexamine privacy rules as mobile technology continues to become more advanced and pervasive.


AT&T, the exclusive carrier of the iPhone in the United States, was accused of setting up a secret eavesdropping room with the help of the government almost three years ago.

This post is also available at the Free My Phone blog of Free Press, a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization working to reform the media.


About Matthew L. Schafer

Matthew L. Schafer graduated from the University of Illinois in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science in Media Studies. He later attended Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Mass Communication where he earned a Masters of Mass Communication and Georgetown University Law Center where he earned his J.D.
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2 Responses to You are here: Apple tracks and stores your location (and you let them)

  1. duranrivera says:

    I love this article. It’s good to see that there are enough people that would hold Apple accountable for any of their practices. It’s only a matter of time before Apple feels the need to take a step back on their policies. They seem to be getting a little too full of themselves right now. People have to understand their information is a commodity. It would be sold and exploited and can be used against you in numerous ways. You don’t have to do anything wrong for it to be used against you.

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