Apple drew heat last week after security experts revealed that the iPhone secretly tracks the movements of its users. While this revelation is troubling, it's only half as bad as how different government agencies are already keeping tabs on the public.
According to security researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, a hidden file on the popular smart phone maintains a continuous history of whatever places the phone has been. Some politicians didn't waste time trying to spin the incident as a market failure requiring government intervention. Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, fired off a letter to Apple chief Steve Jobs on Wednesday explaining the information could be abused by "criminals and bad actors" and demanding an explanation for the phone's behavior. Rep. Jay Inslee, Washington Democrat, insists federal controls on the high-tech industry are required for our own protection. "This episode, and many others, illustrates the need for enhanced government oversight of data-collection activities," he wrote in a statement. "As a result, I am working on comprehensive privacy legislation that will empower consumers with real information and protections against privacy violations."
Apple is certainly doing the private sector no favors by failing to let its customers know what their phones are doing. Competitors like Google's Android phone also appear to track location data, but they do so on a far more limited basis. Such monitoring does not necessarily imply a nefarious purpose, as it can just as easily enable innovative features. Location-sensitive advertising, for example, might propose a discount to someone walking past a store. The information also might be used to better maintain the cellphone network. Whatever the case may be, the public is fully capable of choosing whether it's worth making the privacy tradeoff in owning such a phone.
No such choice is offered by the state governments all along the eastern seaboard that use cellphone tracking data without the knowledge or informed consent of motorists. The I-95 Corridor Coalition, which represents transportation agencies from Maine to Florida, uses the same type of location data to gauge traffic conditions. A third party maintains all of this data obtained in real time from mobile-phone providers. "We are just using their information platform," Maryland State Highway Administration spokesman David Buck told The Washington Times. "We don't know - nor do we care to know - an individual cell user or anything like that."
The same can't be said for Washington, which uses license-plate recognition cameras on streetsweepers and other city vehicles to record what individual is parked where and when. The company that runs the city's speed cameras advertises a similar "feature" that tracks cars as they move past municipal speed traps. The system can automatically send an email to city officials whenever a person of interest drives past.
The possibility of a bad actor misusing such a powerful system is great, but there is no judicial oversight, warrant or court order involved. There's also no way to opt out of the Big Brother tracking systems other than to ride a bicycle. If Apple is doing wrong, it will quickly change its ways in order to preserve its market share. No such pressure applies to government systems. That's why it's important that lawmakers not expand the power and authority of public agencies that are the biggest privacy threats of all.
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