April 22, 2011 at 5:22 pm

Will ‘LocationGate’ Hurt Location Apps? Developers Weigh In.

locationgate apple google app developers respondAs you no doubt know by now, Apple and to a lesser extent Google have been tracking smartphone and tablet users’ locations, with potentially dangerous privacy implications (and some more amusing ones).

If someone’s stalking you, they could steal your iPhone or the computer with which you sync it to reconstruct a detailed map of your travel habits, sorted by time of day, for the past 12 months.

A new Wired.com report indicates that Apple, which has yet to issue a statement about “LocationGate” as it’s being called, explained the situation in a letter last year. However, Apple’s letter claimed that this location data is only accessibly to Apple. That is clearly not the case.

Meanwhile, All Things Digital posted an explanation from Google noting that Android’s locational tracking data, which includes the most recent 50 cellular towers and 200 WiFi hotspots encountered by the device, is anonymized before being sent to the company’s servers. But Google’s statement doesn’t address what happens if someone steals your phone or otherwise hacks into your location file.

As a result, smartphone users on both platforms still have reason to be concerned about LocationGate, which is appearing in mainstream news sources as well as the tech press. One step people could take — as disastrous as it would be for all the promising location-based apps and services being created these days — is to simply turn off location services on their phones.

At the very least, all of this attention being paid to the downside of carrying a location-tracking device could make people think twice about installing apps that take their locations into account. (Unlike standalone GPS units, which don’t send any data up into the cloud but merely track a device’s location relative to incoming satellite location data, smartphones store and can transmit the data, whether for positive or negative purposes.)

Music app developers who responded to our queries (several declined) agreed that Apple should have been far more transparent about the data it was collecting, and why it was collecting it.

“We need to raise awareness,” said Rush Doshi, founder of live music app SuperGlued. “Most people don’t know who has access to their information, and what it could potentially be used for. Some of it is common sense, but by providing your location when posting a tweet, you are broadcasting out to the thousands of apps that use Twitter’s API, and the same is true on Foursquare and Facebook.”

“I think there will eventually be a backlash, particularly when push notifications become as annoying as telemarketers,” he said, “or when people’s location history become accessible by another service for unintended use.”

Doshi said he “wasn’t too shocked” by the news that Apple was storing this information, but others didn’t expect it.

“I was surprised to find out that Apple is storing this information,” said Roqbot co-founder and CEO Garrett Dodge. “The important thing is for developers to clearly convey to end users how they are using the location data and where it is going. Apple is getting heat because people didn’t know the data was being stored — and don’t know why it is being stored.”

To address consumers’ concers about location tracking, Dodge says the transparency lacking from Apple’s approach is crucial, if mainstream users are going to trust location-based services.

“Location is at the core of our service; we have to know where you are to enable you to interact with the music in that physical location,” he said. “Our goal is to clearly communicate how all your information will be used for the service. This seems like a no-brainer, but we look at this like any consumer would.”

Meanwhile, Lance Dashoff, founder and CEO of live music social app Loudie, said it all comes down to one simple factor: whether the user is older or younger than 25.

“To most of us living and breathing in that [location app] world, it’s no surprise [that Apple was tracking this data],” said Dashoff. “But for a lot of mainstream smartphone users, it’s just setting in.”

“It’s a generational thing,” he continued. “There is a huge difference between the 25-and-under social media user and the 25-and-over. They [the younger contingent] just don’t care. They have no concern about that. Privacy means nothing to them. This is just another news story to them.”

Update: We later received responses from Soundtrckr founder Daniele Calabrese and Herd.fm founder James Milward:

Eliot Van Buskirk, Evolver.fm:  As a provider of a location-based service, how did you react to this news that Apple and Google are doing this?

Daniele Calabrese, Soundtrckr: I am not surprised. What I mean by that is that location is not a “feature” of the smartphone but a core essential component inherent to the experience of the digital device and its interaction with the surrounding environment. What is strange is the fact that they are stored on the device instead of communicated back to the cloud and deleted from the cache of the device each time the app is closed and/or the reporting of the location is completed.

James Milward, Herd.fm: Our opinion is that the likelihood of this data being used for “evil” is small, but as the data in stored on the device, it could be an issue if your phone was stolen. We think the bigger issue is that now, people outside of these companies know about he data and could potentially try and exploit it, less so the companies like Apple and Google. Also, just for context, with Herd.fm, we don’t store any location data on the actual device, rather music track “drops” are stored on a secure remote database.

Evolver.fm: How do you think all of this commotion might affect your business, if at all?

Calabrese: We are at the early stage of location-based world. There is going to be a big debate on the issue, but I find it [similar] to anything else that has moved from being associated with a novel behavior to starting to become mainstream. It reminds me of the early days of mobile phones when the debate was about breaking up the privacy by carrying the device all the time around. The reality… later proved different.

Milward: To be honest, it might be a good thing as Apple and Google will probably have to communicate better about how location services work, which will hopefully give users more confidence in this service and ultimately could encourage a further adoption of location based services, or at least a further interest in them.

Evolver.fm: What needs to happen so that people can enjoy location-based services without worrying that they’re being tracked without their knowledge?

Calabrese: [They need] more disclaimer and opt-in notification features. In the end, the mass adoption of the phenomena will prevail.

Milward: We think that better communication about what exactly is happening with this tracking and an effort by these companies about whey they are doing this and what the benefits are? Again, similar to the previous answer, we feel that if this is done well, it could hopefully give users more confidence in this service and ultimately could encourage a further adoption of location based services, or at least a further interest in them.

Evolver.fm: Is there anything else you want to say about this?

Calabrese: It is good news! The mainstreaming process has started!

Milward: Our thoughts are probably best echoed in this blog post. We feel strongly that time will tell that this isn’t some sinister plot, rather just a function of what the devices are capable of and valuable to how they function overall.

(Image courtesy of O’Reilly)