Who owns your location?

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

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End the blackmail

Apple, Google and Microsoft all have an outrageous answer to the question of user control over location data: You can stop your location from being logged and shared by turning off location services in the settings.

In other words, they're saying that if you don't give them information about where you are, they're not going to let you use the GPS capability on your own phone.

Another word for that is blackmail.

Imagine if other cell-phone features worked that way. "If you don't let us download your contact database so we can make money from it, we won't let you use the Contacts app." Or: "If you don't let us capture the phone numbers you dial for our phone-spam database, we won't let you use your smartphone to make calls."

This is unacceptable. We paid for the GPS features in our phones. And we paid for the GPS satellite system with our tax dollars.

That mobile platform makers would disable the use of our own GPS gear and block us from using our own GPS satellite system unless we let them make money off of our location data ... well, that should be illegal.

But because all of the major handset makers offer the same deal, there's no way for user choice to have any effect. Market forces can't correct the problem, because everyone in the market is fleecing users in the same way.

We, the people, demand the equivalent of an "Airplane Mode" for location sharing. We should be able to access a conveniently placed switch that turns off the ability of anyone other than ourselves to use our location data, while keeping the GPS and other location-gathering services functioning for our own use.

Second, we demand that mobile operating system makers take responsibility for giving users control over location sharing by apps. There should be an easily accessible control that shows us who's gathering what information from our phones, with an easy way to say no.

Platform developers like Apple, Google and Microsoft want it both ways. They want a huge chunk of the revenue from app sales, but when those apps violate our privacy they're suddenly not involved in the transaction.

Apple takes one-third of the revenue for iOS apps. And it "protects" us from naked people, unsavory content and other non-existent threats. Why isn't it protecting us from predatory app makers?

And finally, we demand that basic location data that is not associated with individual phones -- useful for identifying crowd movements that could indicate traffic jams, and for many other purposes -- be collected centrally and made public and usable by anyone and everyone. Why should we roll over just because Apple or Google or AT&T claims to own this information? Information about the location of everybody belongs to everybody. It's like the "airwaves" or the National Park System.

Yes, our location data is valuable. But that doesn't mean you can just take it from us.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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