Everybody knows where you are?

By on March 13th, 2013 in Ethics, Privacy & Security, Topics

A recent paper in IEEE Computer Magazine asked the question “Can a Phone’s GPS ‘Lie’ Intelligently ”   As you may have been aware, many mobile aps use the location information of the phone to …well … stalk you.  For an ap that is going to suggest nearby places to eat, that is not all that surprising, but what is surprising is how many actually include this in their “rights” for installation.  (It took me some time to find a FreeCell ap that didn’t want to know my location, who I was talking to on the phone, who my contacts were, etc. etc.)

The  article suggests that for many such applications, there is a “close enough” — which is likely to have a margin of error circa one mile.  This is not enough for your friends (or enemies) to locate you in a shopping mall, but is enough to let you know a friend is near, or a store with a product you might value.  Ergo the title of the article.

Mobile device tracking of location is fairly impressive.  A few years ago I got an Apple iTouch — WiFi (aka IEEE Std. 802.11)  but no cell and no GPS.  I turned it on, and it was able to pinpoint my location on the map!  Google, as you probably know,  has been tracking WiFi MAC addresses as they shoot their street view pictures.  Between this information, cell tower triangulation (needed for 911 calls), and integrated GPS devices my more recent (Android) cell phone has my location nailed very quickly — much faster than my Garmin devices.

The camera in the device can incorporate Longitude/Latitude information into the JPG metafile.  Something that upset some celebrities when they realized that photos being posted to the web not only showed who was at their party, but the date, time and specific location of said party.  I’m not sure if most cell phones or similarly enabled cameras come with the “include location in information” on or off. But I suspect many users haven’t got a clue how to control this — or even that it exists.

In any case … a little paranoia may be justified. … that and much more information for the public so folks suspect that the Angry Birds might actually know where they are!