Our culture has not yet figured out how to handle privacy in the age of digital data. We've had a couple of recent reminders that cell phones are people tracking devices: iPhones are recording a history of your location and so are cell phone companies. Both law enforcement and any person with access to your phone or computer can find out everywhere you've been for the last year.

The problem is this lack of location privacy surprises people. Telco tracking has been happening for several years now. Here's the thing: I want a record of everywhere I've been. I want access to that data. A big problem with the telco tracking is I don't have access to my own location data; only AT&T and the cops do. The big problem with the new iPhone tracker isn't that the phone is tracking my position, it's that I don't have easy access to that track.

A basic law of the digital age is that any information that exists is going to be collected and archived. Once some fact is available, like the location of my cell phone, that data is going to end up in a historical database. Either by design (telco towers) or by accident (iPhone). It's hopeless to stop personal data from being recorded. Instead we need to develop good laws about authorized access to that data. And we need to develop good tools for people to access and use their own data. There's no value in hiding our head in the sand and pretend that iPhones recording location data is some anomaly. Tracking personal data is the inevitable future and it should be made a good and useful thing.

PS: American cell phone companies also keep records of all your SMS messages and provide them to the police when subpoenaed. But you can't get a copy of your own SMS history from the telco.

George Eapen reminded me that Google Latitude is a solid user-controlled phone tracking product.
  2011-04-21 14:59 Z