Media reports that Apple Inc. (AAPL) can track a user’s every movement are teeing up a new round of debate on privacy concerns as regulators and we common folk question who has access to our digital trails, what they are doing with it and what can be done with it.
Some studies have noted that younger people are not so concerned with privacy; they would gladly share their status in order to get a product or service at a lower cost. Older people place a higher price on their privacy. (And perhaps we should redefine privacy now that we live in a world where Facebook friends exchange wall posts on whether or not to get pregnant.)
What is interesting about the newest congressional inquiry into privacy concerns is the target: wireless OS makers. Wireless operators must follow strict guidelines to share information they have about their customers. But Apple, Google Inc. (GOOG), Nokia Corp., (NOK) Research In Motion Ltd. (RIM) and Hewlet-Packard Co. (HPQ) don’t have to follow those same guides. However, today as much information resides on the device as with the operator, and in many cases this information is even more valuable. Will regulations or technology be the answer to this protecting the individual’s right to not be tracked a la their devices?
Wireless operators have been on all sides of the debate: initially they were very leery of sharing information with advertisers; later they saw a potential revenue stream and were more interested. Today, they want to create even more stickiness with their customers by delivering them relevant information and content when, where and how the end user wants it.
And then there are the cops! Cellebrite is a company touting its ability to help law enforcement retrieve information from personal devices. Check out this from the company’s website: “Increasingly, data retrieved from cell phones is not only paramount to the investigative process, it is becoming key prosecutorial evidence in many cases. … Easy to use both in the field and in lab environments, UFED extracts vital data such as phonebook, pictures, videos, text messages, call logs, ESN and IMEI information, for immediate use. It then gathers the data into reports for research and evidence, which can be used in the courtroom.” Several media outlets have covered stories recently warning that cops might ask to see your cellphone if you are pulled over. (Can they do that? Can you refuse?)
This changing landscape could be particularly challenging for regulators to navigate because it changes so quickly. Every advance – the ability to send targeted, wanted coupons, for example – requires technology that has the potential to tell someone else where you are and what you are doing. Back in the day, people used to debate whether it was great to be on the grid all of the time or not. The argument, however, was that people could just turn their phones off if they wanted to be off the grid.
That doesn’t necessarily hold true today.