Your iPad is watching you.
Researchers announced this week that a handful of Apple’s most popular products – namely the iPhone and iPad – are built with internal tracking devices. These devices record the exact longitude and latitude coordinates of where their users have been, when they were there, and how long they stayed. The information is stored in an unencrypted format, making it easily accessible to hackers – as well as to people who are just interested in knowing know more about you, but are unlikely to give you a call (not quite your kind of folks).
A furious and insistent Sen. Al Franken took issue with Steve Jobs, Apple’s CEO, in a forcefully-worded letter this week. In an attempt to alert the public of Apple’s error, Franken wrote in the widely publicized letter, “Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken-over the past months or even a year.” In Franken’s eyes, the tech-giant’s behavior raises “serious privacy concerns.”
Franken isn’t alone in his discomfort. Several other lawmakers – led primarily by Rep. Ed Markey – are also at odds with Apple’s curious decision to conceal this information, just as the initial report was greeted with general anxiety and irritation from the products’ users.
But I’m bewildered by the world’s bewilderment. When are we going to stop acting so surprised by these kinds of ‘discoveries?’ This most recent revelation about Apple is nothing new. This incident is merely an alarming symbol of an ever intensifying, increasingly accepted culture of comprehensive information sharing.
When my grandpa was my age, his home phone number was one turn of the rotary dial: “4.” If he wanted to speak with his friend Danny who lived on the other side of town, he would pick up the receiver and chat with the operator on the other line, who would patch him through to “16.” If my grandpa wanted to find out where Danny had been at three o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, he could ask Danny the next day in school.
We aren’t living in my grandpa’s generation. Privacy’s definition has become a bit more vague and much significantly more generous; its value has been compromised and sold short. Society, companies, and governments alike have bought into these trends.
In the months following September 11th, George Bush signed the Patriot Act into law, essentially granting law enforcement agencies a mandate to spy on American citizens without warrant. Almost a decade later, Barack Obama – who was fundamentally opposed to many elements of the Act during the 2008 presidential campaign – signed another bill that extended a few provisions from the original Act. Among those provisions were an authorization of court-ordered wiretapping and confiscation of property and records. Though the Act expired in February, the ideas upon which is stands remain audible and influential in the halls of congress and in conservative political movements throughout the country.
We’ve seen these trends in the public sector, but they’re happening even more frequently at a MacBook near you. I’m surprised that we act so astounded by Apple’s unsavory behavior because every day – every minute – we voluntarily give up our freedom of privacy.
When I log onto Facebook, I regularly see “Sarah L. is at The Grove with Adam J. and Rebecca M.” When browse someone’s “Basic Information,” it’s as though someone is approaching me and saying “here is my phone number, this is where I go to school, this is where I went to school, here is the name of my employer, and, hey, in case you’re wondering, here are my three favorite Jane Austen novels.”
Al Franken is right to take issue with corporate negligence. But the values of transparency and candor permeate our modern society. Just as we complain about Apple’s duplicity, so too do we buy into the rapidly emerging see-through lifestyle. We lose our credibility when – with one click of the mouse – we express disgust with Steve Jobs’ outing of our information , then – with another click – upload two-hundred pictures from last night’s birthday bash to Flickr.
In this era, privacy is not a given: it is an attainable goal. If we want it, we have to work for it. And if we’re not willing to put in that effort, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our iPads are watching us.