24 May 2019

Apple bobbing: Is your phone secretly tracking your location, and are you happy about it?


Amber Melville-Brown
Partner | US

We’ve all been there… Waking up in the morning and not knowing how we got home, or how long it took us to get there. Or we’ve forgotten what we did last week. Or where we were on Friday because that’s the last time we remember having our wallet.

But don’t worry. Because while we may have all been there, but forgotten where that was, our Apple phones have not. So perhaps do worry.

A recent article in Business Insider alerts us to an Apple core function, deep in the heart of our phones – the Significant Locations function – which tracks where we have been, how frequently we go there, how long we stayed and how we got there.

The good news then is that when we are a little dumb, our smart phones can help us out. Like a long-suffering personal assistant, eyes rolling, or an old-school butler, respectfully sighing, they can inform us that: we did indeed, Madam, take the bus home; it took us almost forty minutes; for some out of character reason, we appear to have had a kebab on the way back; it is likely there, Madam, that we will have left our wallet on the counter.

Are we happy about that? If we retrieve our wallet before its contents have been plundered and before we have to go through the rigmarole of canceling all our credit cards, probably. And we’re also likely a little comforted – as Apple told Business Insider – that the plethora of data that it has accumulated via this route, is encrypted and can’t be shared without our consent.

Still, some of us are still struggling between ferociously guarding our privacy and thus being “off-grid” and out of touch, and living in the modern world, falling under the spell of, if not giving in completely to, the world of Big Data. Whoever we are, this tracking may feel a tad uncomfortable to us.

The reality is that today, everything that we do via our personalized computers – those on our desks, on our laps, or in our hands – leaves a silver snail-trail of data, gold-dust to businesses who wish to sell to us more of what goods or services we viewed, popped into and out of our shopping carts, or ultimately bought when last we visited their stores. Ironically, when our local barista remembers us and pleasantly asks, “Your usual?” we feel happy, not spied upon. And some of us are perfectly prepared – time, money and style permitting – to venture to a bespoke tailor to have something “fabulous dahrling”, made to our specific requirements. Surely the collation of data about our tastes and where we indulge them then, is merely a facilitation, a democratization if you like, of those little luxuries of life?

Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Minority Report futuristically featured personalized advertising scanning the retinas of those who passed its billboards and risked a flicker of the eyes towards the tantalizing screens; having done so, they would be met with a direct and personal summons to entice the potential shopper. “John Anderton. You could use a Guinness right now!” proclaimed one such shining, predatory poster to Tom Cruise’s police officer character as he hurried by.

John Anderton may have avoided the pull of the pint of Guinness. But when we log on or open up, we can easily be reeled in by advertisements that appeal to us. They appeal to us, of course, because our computers, our lap tops and our phones know more about us and our habits, than we do. John Anderton probably could have done with a Guinness, yet resisted. How much resistance do we show when faced in glorious Technicolor with the new must-haves of cat candy, fat-busting diet aids, ethical diamonds, or indestructible shoes?

Apple knows that I am in the Big Apple. It knows if I go to Cranberry Street in Brooklyn Heights. And from there to Pineapple Walk via Orange Street. It knows how long my fresh fruit salad journey took me. I may be happy with that in case I get a little lost the next time I’m looking for the Fruit Street Sitting Area. But equally I may wish to keep my angiosperm-activities to myself. With this function turned on, I can dodge all I like, but in this game of Apple bobbing my data is well and truly caught.

Business Insider sets out the simple steps to knowing about our recent habits, and how, if we can’t kick them, we can try to ensure that they are not available for anyone else to kick around.

I took a little walk down memory lane to view my own recent past – well, apparently sometimes an eight minute walk, sometimes a 24 minute drive. Having done so, if you value your privacy and feel some disquiet at having a silent stalker in your own phone, I suggest you pick up Business Insider’s road map and take a journey into your own Apple-collated past. You may be surprised what you find there.

Category: Article