Apple and Locational Data Sharing

Apple’s entrance into the mobile advertising marketplace was born with their announcement of iAd. Alongside iAd comes persistent locational surveillance of Apple’s customers for the advantage of advertisers and Apple. The company’s advertising platform is controversial because Apple gives it a privileged position in their operating system, iOS4, and because the platform can draw on an iPhone’s locational awareness (using the phone’s GPS functionality) to deliver up targeted ads.

In this post I’m going to first give a brief background on iAd and some of the broader issues surrounding Apple’s deployment of their advertising platform. From there, I want to recap what Steve Jobs stated in a recent interview at the All Things Digital 8 concerning how Apple approaches locational surveillance through their mobile devices and then launch into an analysis of Apple’s recently changed terms of service for iOS4 devices as it relates to collecting, sharing, and retaining records on an iPhone’s geographic location. I’ll finish by noting that Apple may have inadvertently gotten itself into serious trouble as a result of its heavy-handed control of the iAd environment combined with modifying the privacy-related elements of their terms of service: Apple seems to have awoken the German data protection authorities. Hopefully the Germans can bring some transparency to a company regularly cloaked in secrecy.

Apple launched the iAd beta earlier this year and integrates the advertising platform into their mobile environment such that ads are seen within applications, and clicking on ads avoids taking individuals out of the particular applications that the customers are using. iAds can access core iOS4 functionality, including locational information, and can be coded using HTML 5 to provide rich advertising experiences. iAd was only made possible following Apple’s January acquisition of Quattro, a mobile advertising agency. Quattro was purchased after Apple was previously foiled in acquiring AdMob by Google last year (with the FTC recently citing iAd as a contributing reason why the Google transaction was permitted to go through). Ostensibly, the rich advertising from iAds is intended to help developers produce cheap and free applications for Apple’s mobile devices while retaining a long-term, ad-based, revenue stream. Arguably, with Apple taking a 40% cut of all advertising revenue and limiting access to the largest rich-media mobile platform in the world, advertising makes sense for their own bottom line and its just nice that they can ‘help’ developers along the way… Continue reading

Privacy Norms in the Bio-Digital World

pixelatedworldThe Western world is pervaded by digital information, to the point where we might argue that most Western citizens operate in a bio-digital field that is constituted by the conditions of life and life’s (now intrinsic) relationships to digital code. While historically (if 30 years or so can withstand the definitional intonations of ‘historically) such notions of code would dominantly pertain to government databanks and massive corporate uses of code and data, with the advent of the ‘social web’ and ease of mashups we are forced to engage with questions of how information, code, and privacy norms and regulations pertain to individual’s usage of data sources. While in some instances we see penalties being handed down to individuals that publicly release sensitive information (such as Sweden’s Bodil Lindqvist, who was fined for posting personal data about fellow church parishioners without consent), what is the penalty when public information is situated outside of its original format and mashed-up with other data sources? What happens when we correlate data to ‘map’ it?

Let’s get into some ‘concrete’ examples to engage with this matter. First, I want to point to geo-locating trace route data, the information that identifies the origin of website visitors’ data traffic, to start thinking about mashups and privacy infringements. Second, I’ll briefly point to some of the challenges arising with the meta-coding of the world using Augmented Reality (AR) technologies. The overall aim is not to ‘resolve’ any privacy questions, but to try and reflect on differences between ‘specificity’ of geolocation technology, the implications of specificity, and potential need to establish a new set of privacy norms given the bio-digital fields that we find ourself immersed in.

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Facial Blurring = Securing Individual Privacy?

Google map privacy?The above image was taken by a Google Streetcar. As is evident, all of the faces in the picture have been blurred in accordance with Google’s anonymization policy. I think that the image nicely works as a lightning rod to capture some of the criticisms and questions that have been arisen around Streetview:

  1. Does the Streetview image-taking process itself, generally, constitute a privacy violation of some sort?
  2. Are individuals’ privacy secured by just blurring faces?
  3. Is this woman’s privacy being violated/infringed upon in so way as a result of having her photo taken?

Google’s response is, no doubt, that individuals who feel that an image is inappropriate can contact the company and they will take the image offline. The problem is that this puts the onus on individuals, though we  might be willing to affirm that Google recognizes photographic privacy as a social value, insofar as any member of society who sees this as a privacy infringement/violation can also ask Google to remove the image. Still, even in the latter case this ‘outsources’ privacy to the community and is a reactive, rather than a proactive, way to limit privacy invasions (if, in fact, the image above constitutes an ‘invasion’). Regardless of whether we want to see privacy as an individual or social value (or, better, as valuable both for individuals and society) we can perhaps more simply ponder whether blurring the face alone is enough to secure individuals’ privacy. Is anonymization the same as securing privacy?

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Update: Geolocation and Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle

200902151422.jpgI try to keep abreast of mobile-enabled geolocation software, and two of the largest contenders in this space (as I see it) are Google and Yahoo!. At the moment, Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle software has been publicly available (with an open API) for over a year (I talked about it previously) and, according to Ars Technica, about 70 third-party applications have been developed.

There are major updates coming to Fire Eagle:

…users will soon be seeing an ActionScript Fire Eagle library and a Mozilla Firefox geo-plugin that locates users via WiFi MAC addresses. Also coming up are new XMPP libraries. (Source)

It’s the focus on the Firefox geo-plugin that I think will be most interesting to watch. Given the Mozilla is currently developing their Fennec browser for mobile environments, it suggests that the Fire Eagle plugin could come to phones and other mobile devices that are Internet-by-WiFi but not GPS or data plan enabled. Using a browser plugin, it should be possible to identify your location on a map simply by being in vicinity to wireless APs, regardless of whether you can actually authenticate to them (similar to how users with iPod Touches can currently roughly locate themselves on Google Maps via WiFi MAC address detection). Below is an image of Mozilla’s beta-version of Fennec.

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Comment: Google Latitude

200902121734.jpgIn the past week or so, Google has receive an enormous amount of attention because of their Latitude program. Latitude, once installed and enabled, will alert specified friends to your geographic location very specifically (i.e. street address) or more broadly (i.e. city). Google has developed this system so that users can turn off the system, can alter how precise it locates users, and has (really) just caught up to the technologies that their competitors have already been playing with (I wrote a little about Yahoo!’s Fire Eagle software, which is similar to Latitude, a few months ago).

While many people have already written and spoken about Latitude, I’ve found myself on a fence. On the one hand, I think that some of the criticisms towards the ‘privacy’ features of the program have been innane – at least one privacy advocate’s core ‘contribution’ to has been a worry that individuals might be given a phone with Latitude installed and active, without knowing about its presence or activation. As a result, they would be tracked without having consented to the program, or the geo-surveillance.

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Update: Geolocation and Mobiles

A few months ago I published a post on a product called Fire Eagle. As I then noted, Fire Eagle is an application that developers can integrate into their software suites, enabling users to identify and broadcast their geospatial location to others on the application’s network.

With the advent of the iPhone and other easy-to-use smart phones (typically read: not Windows Mobile devices), more and more people are wanting to find where they are using the built in mapping software. Moreover, advertisers are chomping at the bit to provide ads to individuals when they surf the web with their mobiles, personalizing the ads to customers’ interests and proximate geolocation. Unipier’s family of devices opens the door for cellular providers to begin this detailed level of geolocation, and it should be noted that Bell has begun to integrate Unipier devices into their network architecture.

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