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Apple 'dropped the ball' on iPhone location tracking issue, says expert

Crisis communications pro blasts Apple for taking too long to explain tracking

April 28, 2011 01:09 PM ET

Computerworld - Apple's explanation about how and why iPhones track users' locations was too late, too little, a crisis communications expert said today.

"For a company that prides itself on knowing what consumers want and what they think, Apple seems to have dropped the ball in a big way in this case," said Michael Robinson, a senior vice president with Levick Strategic Communications, a Washington, D.C. firm that helps companies deal with public relations emergencies.

"Privacy is at the core of what people want," said Robinson. "It's a fundamental concern. For Apple to misunderstand that was surprising. This blunder makes no sense to me at all."

Yesterday, Apple responded to growing concerns over the apparent tracking of iPhone and 3G iPad users' movements that began last week when British researchers reported that iOS concealed an unencrypted file containing thousands of location data entries going back almost a year. The unsecured file was also backed up on users' PCs and Macs during synchronization.

In the intervening days, members of Congress have asked Apple to explain the practice, and at least one lawsuit has been filed in federal court demanding that the company cease and desist.

Apple denied it tracked users. "Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone," the company said in a statement released Wednesday. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

Robinson said Apple made several mistakes, not least of which was taking a week to publicly address the issue.

"We live in a world that's measured in seconds," said Robinson, who said that a week was far too long. "Companies grow and go away in that time. If it takes a week, it might as well take a month."

By letting a week pass without answering questions or explaining why the unencrypted file was on iPhones and iPads, Apple let others fill the news vacuum, never a good move for a company under fire.

"In a week's time, Congress of all people got involved," said Robinson, referring to Congressional scrutiny that kicked off the same day researchers reported on tracking. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who chairs a new Senate privacy panel, has already scheduled a hearing for May 10, and asked Apple and Google to testify.

"If there's enough time for Congress and state attorneys general to get involved, for class-action lawyers to file litigation, [Apple] had the time," Robinson said. "It just boggles the mind that they waited a week."

In an interview Apple CEO Steve Jobs did with Ina Fried of the Wall Street Journal's All Things Digital blog -- he said that Apple was "an engineering-driven company" and needed several days to investigate the complaints, then craft a statement that made the subject "intelligible" to customers.



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