Cornell prof warns iPhone, iPad users: "We're selling our privacy"

Says cell phone makers need to take privacy into account when designing systems


Revelations that iPhones, iPads and other Apple iOS devices track your whereabouts have led a Cornell University professor to warn mobile device users about what they're sacrificing to use such gadgets.

"It is vitally important to recognize that cellular telephony is a surveillance technology, and that unless we openly discuss this surveillance capability and craft appropriate legal and technological limits to that capability, we may lose some or all of the social benefits of this technology, as well as a significant piece of ourselves," says Stephen Wicker, Cornell professor of electrical and computer engineering. "Most people don't understand that we're selling our privacy to have these devices."

As reported yesterday, two programmers presented details at a conference of an iOS 4.0 database file, usually unencrypted, created on the iPhone (or iPad or touch) and then synced to a user's Mac. This file contains thousands of time-stamped latitude and longitude pairings, apparently based on cell tower triangulation calculations.

BACKGROUND: Apple iPhone location tracking has been no secret, researcher claims

Beyond possible security risks, one major concern about  revealing private data through smartphones and other mobile devices is how direct marketers will exploit it. Wicker cites Direct Marketing Association data showing nearly $150 billion spent on direct marketing in 2009, which was converted into a trillion-plus dollars in revenue.

(New efforts in context-based computing are even putting IT staff in the position of exploiting such data, as we reported from a Gartner conference last fall)

"Back in the day when designers designed the cellular system, none of designers took privacy into account – they unintentionally created databases that accumulated a lot of information that is now being exploited by service providers and law enforcement (See: "State police can suck data out of cell phones in under two minutes")," Wicker says. "We can create cellular systems that don't create such databases."

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