A recent investigation by a pair of security experts have discovered your car records and keeps track of all the miles it's been driven - and displays that number right on your dashboard where anyone can see it.
They also have found your Web browser stores a list of all the Web pages you visit.
Finally, the security experts were shocked, shocked to find an insidious plot by your email client, which stores copies of all the emails you send and receive.
Alert the media! (Oh, wait – I am the media.)
I'm sort of kidding. But this is how I feel about the recent brouhaha stirred up by real-life security experts who discovered that Apple "secretly" creates a file buried in your system folders that keeps a record of everywhere your iPhone has been (as does Google, apparently). This investigative journalistic breakthrough on the level of red sky at night sailor's delight has nevertheless prompted paranoid news reports, indignant Congressional investigations, law suits charging invasion of privacy, and Top 10 Lists on late night comedy shows.
All of which leaves me puzzled, angry and, the worst thing you can make a writer – sarcastic.
Oh, to H-E-double-hockey-sticks with sarcastic – let's move right to disdain. This is the absolutely stupidest tech non-story of the year, if not the decade, if not all time. The Patriot Act, which contained far more subversive intrusions into our personal data life, barely generated this much paranoia, fear and indignation. Net neutrality is far more important to how we use the internet.
I'd call this Apple location record keeping story a tempest in a teapot, but that'd be insulting to both. This is more like, oh, a typo in a term paper, a ticket in a terminal, a termite on the Titanic (hey, they all make as much metaphorical sense as a tempest in a teapot).
Why stupidest, etc.? Let's review.
There's a file deep in your system files that lists in coded form everywhere your iPhone has been since the release of the iPhone iOS 4 operating system – about a year. Unless someone told you – which someone has – you'd never know the file was there. The only way someone could see the file is if someone gets a hold of your phone or computer. Then they'd have to know how to translate the information, which looks like this:
Oh, we can't let anyone see THAT data! (Okay, that's sarcasm.)
This location information isn't surreptitiously sent to Apple. Apple doesn't steal it and sell it to advertisers or anyone else. No one else sees it. I could barely find it.
And this is bad because…?
But let's suppose someone got hold of your computer and could translate those lines of code in the file to discover where you've been.
Are you Jason Bourne? Having an affair? Pretending you're dead? Afraid the CIA is chasing you for your role in the Kennedy assassination?
And to what nefarious purpose would Apple put the data, if it had access to it, which it doesn't, that told the company you visited your Aunt Sophie in Dubuque for Christmas?
You want to know where I've been when? Check out the picture above. I'd happily post my complete travel history if I thought it would be of any interest to anyone except maybe my wife, parents or editor.
You yourself store far more sensitive data on your computer than where you've visited in the last year - email, for one thing. Do you encrypt your email to keep prying eyes from perusing your correspondence? No? Then why are you worried about anyone knowing where you've been?
And you do know your cell phone company not only knows everywhere you've been but who you've called, right? The government can get a hold of that information any time it likes far easier than someone squirreling into your system sub folders.
Ever heard of Foursquare? It's one of the most popular social networking services extant, and it's predicated entirely on you telling EVERYONE where you are and where you've been. But having a file with this information buried somewhere in your computer that no one can see or decipher is a problem?
But, you insist, you opt in to Foursquare. You didn't opt in for this location history file. Well, you sort of have. You've likely downloaded iPhone and Android location-based apps. And you give these apps permission to know your location – so they work – by turning on location services in the Settings menu.
Then how and why, exactly, is it a surprise, secret or subversive that a computer keeps track of this data? It's what computers do.
App of the Week
Why is this screed labeled App of the Week? If you own an iPhone you sync with a Mac (sorry, no Windows version yet), go download the iPhone Tracker software and you'll see how ridiculous this entire non-situation is. iPhone Tracker accesses this secret file and, like pins on a map, shows you where you've been. It's actually kind of cool – if I could only figure out what the varying colored dots represent. (The photo above is my regional travel activity mapped on iPhone Tracker.)
Ironically, iPhone Tracker was created by the security experts who discovered this disgraceful misuse of our personal data (some more sarcasm).
I have a feeling some other app entrepreneurs will create clever apps to take advantage of this file. But Apple may well fix what has been reported to be a mere oversight or bug, not some nefarious plot to steal your location soul, in the next update of the iPhone operating system, before any new apps, law suits or Congressional hearings amount to anything.