Why the iPhone 5s is too good

When it comes to technology and design in consumer electronics, Apple has few peers. But in trying to lead the way in smartphone technology with the iPhone 5s, the company's creativity has given us a reason to step back and consider the privacy implications.

The M7 and privacy

Where Apple's work seems almost too good is in the M7 coprocessor dedicated to tracking people's daily activity and storing the information for seven days. The data drawn from the phone's gyroscope, compass and accelerometer sensors provides a wealth of personal details, such as when a person is walking, jogging or  sleeping.

The reason Apple has built a separate chip to handle these chores is to avoid using the more power-hungry A7 processor that drives most of the the iPhone's features. With the M7, the iPhone can track activity continuously without draining the battery or making its presence known to the user.

Many of us carry our smartphones all the time, so the idea that it is constantly gathering and storing such personal data is creepy, since we can never be absolutely sure how that information is being used.

Apple gives examples of how it uses the data to switch Maps from driving to walking turn-by-turn navigation and to reduce network pinging when the user is asleep to extend battery life.

How else the data is used and what else Apple has planned for it in the future is not known, so the best the user can do is to trust the company to make privacy a priority.

In an opinion piece in Wired, Sara M. Watson, a fellow at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, writes that without transparency, we can never be sure what Apple or any other phone manufacturer will do with the data it collects.

"Smartphones are just the start," Watson says. "Sensors are starting to show up in more of our appliances and devices. With activity tracking on our phones, a few quantified selves turns into a quantified society … whether we are aware of it or not."

Losing control

A slip up in transparency is what got Google in trouble last year with its Apple Siri competitor Google Now. The personal assistant in Android displays helpful information, such as flight details, traffic updates and nearby restaurants, based on what it knows about the user from information harvested by the phone.

What Google didn't announce is that Google Now included a pedometer that tracked when the user was walking and biking. Users became aware of it when the feature displayed information on their activity for the month.

This wasn't a serious privacy violation, given all the other data Google already has on users, and the information it provided is useful in helping people decide whether they need to walk or jog more. But it does show that as more and more information is collected on our daily lives, the more difficult it will be to know for sure where it is, who is using it and how it is being used.

Losing control over our privacy can have serious consequences, particularly if the data is accessible to government, law enforcement and lawyers. There's also a huge problem with companies getting that information.

Corporations are not our friends. They don't know us as individuals. We are only bits in a large data store that's used for profit. What's good for companies and their shareholders often collides with what's best for individuals.

Secrecy is privacy violators' greatest weapon. If you don't know what's being done with the data collected, then you can't stop it. That's why Apple's very effective motion-sensing technology is so troubling.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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