Who owns your location?

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.

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.


Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon