Tag Archives: Consumer privacy

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.

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.