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Smart Phone GPS Tracking

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Today at dinner my family had a discussion about smartphone GPS tracking and whether or not it is too much.  My step-dad’s opinion is that we have given up a sort of “privacy” because our phones have the ability to track our every location.  However our phones give us the option to turn tracking services off.

For example, when I got my new iPhone and opened up the camera application, the first thing I was asked was “Would you like to turn location services on?”

NO!  Why on earth would I want to turn location services on for my camera?  This is where I agree with my step-dad – we have gone overboard in tracking too much.  However where I disagree with my step-dad is when I simply hit “No” and that was that.

So these are the conclusions we came to in regards to this topic:


The convenience of having GPS on our phones outweighs the negative connotation associated with someone potentially being able to track our every room.  The potential of someone hacking my phone is greater with the lack of security on phones as compared to computers, however with proper maintenance and knowledge of applications, this can be avoided.

It has always existed

The ability to track the location of a cell phone has always existed.  The signal a cell phone sends can be tracked based on the towers in the area.  Both Apple and Google have said that the location data they specifically collect cannot be tied back to a single user – the data is essentially anonymous.

People share their information willingly

If someone was trying to track another person, there are easier means to do this than to hack a cell phone to collect the location data.  People consistently post “I am at <insert location here>” status updates.  The FourSquare application allows people to “check-in” and become mayor of a given location – thus indicating that this is a location they frequent often.  Even Yelp allows people to check-in and disclose the exact location they’re at and the exact time.  This data is easily obtained, and is willingly provided.

Photo Credit

7 responses »

  1. In all honesty, my reaction is one of a very simple “who cares?” Perhaps, I’m just jaded because I deal a lot with network security on a daily basis, but I find getting in an uproar about location tracking to be futile at best. Frankly, I want my girlfriend to be able to track me down should she ever need to; I have nothing to hide.

    Personally, I like the fact that photos can be geotagged. For myself, it is a very simple and effective way to organize data about client sites, business trips, and so forth. I spent about six month living in the Ukraine a few years back and have copious photos my time there. None of those photos are geotagged, and the more time that passes the harder it is to recall the specifics as to where exactly they were all taken. Sure I may know approximately, but there were times when I was on a train from Kiev to various location in the Crimea region. I would love to be able to with the push of a button to know exactly which street corner a photo was taken so that I might look up that same corner on the satellite all these years later. My point is there are many legitimate reasons one might benefit from geotagging photos without implying anything nefarious.

    The current issue this week is Apple collecting tracking information in the “consolidated.db” file. Moreover, it is the fact that this is logged without opting in or out. However, the fact is that it doesn’t log constantly or even regularly so any data would be more of a random sampling of data points. This has been present since the release of iOS4 but is just now gaining publicity. In fact, there have even been instances where this data has been used to catch criminals and debunk false alibis. Clearly some good can come from this data. However, thus far Apple has yet to comment on what exactly the purpose of this data.

    In the end, I believe it is all about expectations. In today’s world you just have to accept a fundamental lack of privacy. If you want something to be private you cannot simply assume it is private simply because you want it to be. You have to take steps to ensure you truly have that privacy. Users should also try to maintain a reasonable amount of personal security and basic awareness. The user is where the primary breakdown in the system is. It’s much like the wise philosopher, a certain GI Joe, once said, “knowing is half the battle!”

    Truly, technology professionals are no different from lawyers. Those that know the ins and outs of a given system are able to control said system to their benefit and reap the rewards.

    • Thank you for your thoughts! You are right – the number one issue about Apple’s data collection is their unencrypted file containing locations. But I feel as though we readily provide information in more public places to where a “stalker” or “hacker” or “anyone who cares” would not need to put in the effort to hack our phones when they can simply log on to facebook and check out our “places.”

      But you completely hit the nail on the head when you said “you just have to accept a fundamental lack of privacy.” Nothing can be 100% guaranteed private. Data breaches are becoming more and more common as companies learn new ways to protect and secure data

      Again – thank you for taking the time to provide input on this subject!

      • Agreed. There are far simpler (and more accurate) methods of tracking someone if they desire.

        The truth is true privacy doesn’t exist; Accept it, and move on. 😉

  2. Great post Ashley!

    It’s an interesting debate for sure. It’s funny to watch some people who complain about privacy actively using FourSquare and Geotagging photos. It’s a self-inflicted problem.

    From a forensics standpoint, being able to show where photos taken from an iPhone were actually taken is a useful investigative tool. Even for accident investigations I can see the utility in positioning the location of the accident by mashing photo longitude and latitude on a Google map.

    Perverse incentives apply to new technology. There are always some unintended consequences to something new and cool. Some people actively look to abuse technology for malicious purposes. If it weren’t for them, there wouldn’t be need for people like us, right? 🙂

    • Haha exactly! If it weren’t for the people who have malicious intent, I’d be out of a job! Hats off to them 🙂

      I see how using a location service for photos can be useful, but it still freaks me out a bit to have that much information for a picture. From an investigative point – very useful! From a user’s point – kind of creepy.

      I always enjoy hearing your thoughts Paul! Thank you 🙂

  3. Ashley –

    Great post and I have had recent discussions with my families and friends over the past several months as well as I also just purchased an iPhone.

    With the ease and accessibility that technology has created in regards to gathering data, the term “privacy” is nearly non existent. As soon as information is posted on one platform or site, it is out there for the universe to see and those seeking that information will find a way to find it, whether you want them to find it or not.

    I think society in general is unaware of the power of technology and the true capabilities and what it can accomplish. It is scary to be see what can be done with a little hard-work and some tech skills, and I think the majority of people are better off not worrying about it.

    When it comes to the iPhone and other devices, who’s able to check and see if they are not using the true capabilities of the device, because you choose to click on the “no thanks” option.

    Technology has become scary good. Scary meaning both something that is incredible, but also in its original intent as it is truly scary to see what can be accomplished with technology.

    My advice would be to be careful with what you make available, but in the end, I am not really sure that protecting your information is even possible anymore.

    I think the best advice is to just to fully aware of your actions and whereabouts, and assume people will eventually find out.

    Good Luck!

    • Very well put, Steven. You are very correct- ultimately we just need to be careful of what we make available because privacy is a matter of opinion when it comes to our virtual identity. And the availability of information really is “scary.” If someone tries hard enough, they can pull some sort of information about anyone.

      Thank you for your input on this topic, Steven! I really appreciate it!


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