Who owns your location?

An open letter to handset platform companies, carriers, app makers and the government.

Dear Apple, Google, Microsoft, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon, app makers, Congress and President Obama (or current resident):

Enough! We, the smartphone-using people of the United States, are being taken advantage of, stolen from and blackmailed. It's got to stop.

The smartphones we carry have four ways to know where we are: GPS, Wi-Fi proximity, cell-tower triangulation and user check-in via services like FourSquare.

This "location data" -- information that the phone gathers about where the phone is at any given time -- has monetary value, as well as priceless social value.

In other words, there's money to be made from knowledge about where each of us is at any given moment. A lot of money. That data can be converted into contextual advertising revenue, used to create compelling new services or improve the value of existing products.

As a society, we have not fully vetted this issue. The question over who owns this data has not been resolved.

In the absence of this conversation, various companies have rushed into the void to stake their claims. Each of them asserts the right to capture, transmit, own, use, manipulate, sell or otherwise monetize what is not rightly theirs: my location, and the location of every smartphone user.

Apple has been storing general location data in an unencrypted file on iPhones. The company said the long-term storage of that data was a mistake that it has now fixed. Apple also said it plans to use phone location data to build a traffic service. By pooling information about the speed of drivers, the system the company envisions could detect traffic jams.

Google, Microsoft and others do the same thing. Google's Android operating system doesn't simply store the data on the phone; it transmits it back to Google servers. Android devices also collect GPS data and each phone's unique ID number.

One reason cell-phone operating systems collect this data is to improve cell-phone service. A phone can more quickly access cell tower or Wi-Fi service by referencing a local file, rather than launching a new search to see what connection options are out there each time. This capturing of location data improves the quality of the user experience, which gives handset makers an advantage in the market and helps them sell more phones -- Apple reported $12.3 billion in second-quarter sales of its iPhone alone.

Another reason is that location data can be used to offer services and location-based advertising. In other words, it can (and will) be monetized.

All of the major carriers, including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon, collect customer location data and then sell the information in bulk to companies that can use it. The carriers told Congress this week that they ask user permission before doing this.

I don't recall being asked. Do you?

Many app makers routinely gather location data and often collect personal information from the phone to go with it -- information like your home ZIP code and your gender. Apps can do this without user knowledge or permission. In many cases, it's not clear how this information is being used, or whether it's being sold to third parties.

We suddenly find ourselves in a world where handset platform makers, carriers and app makers all claim ownership of our locations.

Nobody planned it this way. We've slouched into this state of affairs one step at a time while nobody was paying attention.

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