Category Archives: Technology

Why You Should Care About Your Mobile Phone’s Location Tracker

Are you reading this blog post on your mobile telephone? If you’re doing so, you can now feel a little more secure about carrying it with you when you leave your home.

Why? Because the four major cell phone networks have decided to stop selling customer location data to third parties. They made this choice in response to the inappropriate corporate behavior of LocationSmart, a data aggregator.

How did LocationSmart mishandle location data? Unfortunately, the four carriers didn’t release detailed information regarding its actions. Nevertheless, LocationSmart’s web site highlights its sale of geofencing services.

A geofence is a virtual sensory field that surrounds a geographic location. When someone approaches the field, his mobile phone “pings” its location to the cellular network without notifying its owner. The data can be instantly communicated to a business that occupies the location, or packaged and then sold to third parties.

A relatively benign service might involve the text messaging of a price discount offer to a mobile phone in order to entice its owner to enter a store within the geofence. A potentially malignant service, though, might involve the compilation and sale of detailed personal profiles of cell phone owners.

The malignancy of a profiling service need not be intentional on the part of the data aggregator. Consider, for instance, the plight of an individual who frequently visits a grocer or restaurant that has recently opened in a building that also houses a cigar shop. A health insurer that purchases the data may (erroneously) flag the individual as a cigar smoker. The individual may never become aware of the sale of his location data, or of his health insurance classification.

The recent decision of the four cell phone networks removes one path to such an outcome. But if individuals continue to download and install applications without reading the fine print in their Terms and Conditions, they may provide data aggregators with new paths to the same undesirable outcome.

Apple’s Differential Privacy

Business executives at Apple have always been somewhat ambivalent about the issue of customer privacy. On the one hand, they routinely claim that they maintain a much higher standard of confidentiality towards their user data than many other technology firms. And yet, on the other hand, artificial intelligence programs like Siri cannot learn the preferences of their users without accessing such personal information.

Last week, Apple drew attention to its new computer operating system by announcing that it will employ a technique known as differential privacy to balance these countervailing business imperatives. The term refers to the practice of mixing dummy (i.e. false) data into a large data set in order to make it more difficult for a party with data access to identify any particular user.

How does it work? Imagine, for instance, a bachelor who owns a single residential property. A fictitious wife and a vacation home might be added to his “big data” file without being included in his individual personal profile.

It’s a potentially effective strategy, but it’s a risky one as well. After all, a hacker might thwart its intent by discovering a way to identify and then delete the false content. Or the firm might mismanage its systems and lose the ability to distinguish between the true and the false data.

Given such concerns, perhaps Apple should consider a simpler approach to protecting user data. At the moment, it requires users to read its incomprehensible tiny-print disclosure language before they install its software on their devices.

Instead, perhaps the firm could simply explain the benefits and risks of its data management practices in basic layperson’s language. Each prospective user could then make an informed decision about whether the benefits of utilizing the services justify the risks of doing so.

Such a policy would place Apple squarely on the side of the principle of information transparency. It would also eliminate the need to engage in differential privacy techniques.

But what if Apple doesn’t opt for this policy? Then it’s quite possible that the firm will continue to employ such techniques for the foreseeable future, mixing its good data with the bad.

Set Top Boxes: The Other Privacy Debate

A government official issues a directive to the technology industry. Corporate spokespersons protest. And the general public leaps into a privacy debate.

The highest profile story that reflects this sequence of events, of course, involves Apple’s refusal to unlock the iPhone that belonged to one of the San Bernardino assassins. But there’s another privacy story, now brewing under a lower profile, that might ultimately wield a greater impact on the future day-to-day lives of most Americans.

It’s the cable television set-top box controversy. Most of us don’t even think about the little computerized boxes that sit on our television sets, and that convert the transmission signals into images and sound.

At the moment, virtually all Americans obtain those little boxes from the same technology companies that transmit the cable signals. But as a result of a recent Federal Communications Commission directive, that is likely to change.

Why? Because the directive opens up the set-top box market to competition. Very soon, the cable television companies will be required to allow their customers to use Apple TVs, Google Android TVs, and other third party devices to perform that conversion task. And, under these circumstances, such competition might generate undesirable consequences.

Huh? Isn’t competition a good thing? Well, yes, it is. But given that companies like Apple and Google already manage so much of our private information, access to our television viewing habits would massively magnify existing concerns about the concentration of our personal information in the hands of these firms.

Of course, the San Bernardino controversy is extremely important too. So, the next time you hear about the great privacy debate in regards to that terrible event, by all means, please feel free to deliberate about its ramifications.

But, at the same time, please don’t overlook the set-top box privacy discussion. It’s the “other” great policy debate, and it might well determine whether the firms that already know everything we do on our phones and computers also end up knowing everything we watch on television.