Your iPhone is tracking your every move...
My friend Pete Warden does a splendid job of data mining, of analyzing the information that companies make available and/or track, but without telling us exactly what they're doing. His last adventure was with Facebook, where his data analysis got him into hot water with the notoriously lax company (see his blog post I got sued by Facebook).
This time he and fellow researcher Alasdair Allan have stumbled into something rather astonishing: a time-based archive of iPhone lat/long locations where you've used your phone. Better yet, they wrote an open source app called iPhoneTracker that lets you visualize the data so you can understand what's going on. A caveat: iPhoneTracker is quite clearly not intended to be a polished application with a fully implemented interface but rather a tool to let you see your own tracking information. It reveals alarming data pulled out of your primary iPhone backup file.
Here's the result of running iPhoneTracker on my own backup file:
iPhoneTracker Data Sample, Southern California
I've been using the phone throughout Southern California in the last month or so, but had no idea that the device was logging my locations over time. As you can see, however, it is, and the darker the color, the more cellular network checkins happened at that spot.
As other commentators have pointed out (see here, here and here), at a minimum this data should be stored in an encrypted format, but the fact that it's logging this information at all is troubling. What's the point of it? Why use storage space for this obviously rather large dataset? Why not give me the option of disabling this feature for increased privacy?
More importantly, what does Apple do with it when I sync, when I take my iPhone in to the Apple Store for service, when I trade in the phone for a newer device?
I realize that it's not the end of the world and I'm not doing my Chicken Little impression here, but really, when you use your phone as you travel around, do you have the expectation that it's tracking your every move in an easily accessible format?
Imagine those divorce fights in court... "according to your phone, you were at Tony's place from 3-6pm every day for the last month!" "According to my WHAT?"
I'm interested in hearing an explanation from Apple about what's going on, and even more interested in an update to iOS that lets me either disable this feature or at least encrypt it so that my privacy is a bit more assured if I lose the device.
Another reason why Amazon.com's the online retailer to beat
How's this for an example of why it's safe to pre-order products at e-retail powerhouse Amazon.com?
You saved $1.12 with Amazon.com's Pre-order Price Guarantee!
The price of the item(s) decreased after you ordered them, and we gave you the lowest price.
The following title(s) decreased in price:
City of Fallen Angels (Mortal Instruments, Book 4)
You will receive an additional e-mail when this refund is processed.
Amazing. No worries about comparison shopping, no anxiety about waiting until the book is released to see if it's going to be cheaper elsewhere, just a completely automated system that ensures customers get the best possible deal, even after they've placed their order.
Kudos to Amazon.com, again.
Imagine if your cellphone bill worked this way, btw...
The risky business of April Fools Day
It's a bit of a dilemma for trendy, modern digital companies: do you try and be amusing on April 1st and get some good buzz for your company, even at the risk of it misfiring, or do you just continue with business as usual and pretend it's not a big deal?
Of course, April Fools Day really isn't a big deal, it's just an opportunity ostensibly knocking, a chance for a little company to get some good word of mouth for having executed something witty, ironic or satirical.
Some companies do well every year. Google never fails to amuse, most recently with its Gmail Motion parody interface. Smart, well-thought-out, they're a good model of how to deliver a digital trick that harms no-one and that's not offensive. In fact, the best tricks are ones where you're not quite 100% sure it's a trick because, maybe, well, maybe it is legitimate...
But sometimes the joke isn't funny at all, it isn't wry or banal, it's just stupid. Or worse.
This year the worst example I saw was at a Nickelodeon online property called Neopets. Impressively busy, it's a virtual online world aimed at younger children, where they can tend and nurture virtual pets. Boring for a 15yo, it's perfect for the pre-teen set.
Which is why their attempt at April Fools humor was astonishing. Here it is:
That's right, a children's media network decided that the funny April Fools Day trick for their younger Neopets audience was to announce the spread of a pandemic that affected all the virtual pets and seemed to be potential fatal if no cure was found.
I have a few choice words about this on my parenting blog if you want to read more about this misfire: Neopets and the Alarmingly Tasteless April Fools.
Here I just want to encourage businesses to think long and hard before they try to delve into humor, parody or satire. It's a slippery slope and can backfire on you or blow up way faster than you can possibly imagine...
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