The tech community has sounded the alarm in the last couple days that our iPhones have been storing years worth of information on our whereabouts, down to an alarming level of detail. Surely this has been known by some for quite a while, but a beautifully presented application by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden brought the issue to the public in the last week (A hacker friend of mine suggested that this and other non-technical presentations of known exploits — see Firesheep — only appear once the exploits are no longer economically viable).
I downloaded the application to try it out, and sure enough, without even touching my Unix shell, I had a precise mapping of my whereabouts over the last year. Certainly it isn’t a huge shock that in the 21st century our locations are being tracked, but we shouldn’t take these revelations too lightly. David Pogue, a New York Times blogger, ridicules those who suggest that we should be concerned by this news. But I think Mr. Pogue is missing some of the broader implications of the release.
Cell phone privacy has become a major issue in 21st century privacy law. We are far from having clear definitions of how information stored on our phones can and cannot be used by the government. Just this year, the California Supreme Court ruled warrantless searches of cell phones to be legal. This is where things get scary. In their decision, the court grants “carte blanche” for an officer to look through any data in a cell phone confiscated during an arrest, according to the dissenting opinion of Justice Kathryn Werdegar. We now know that this data can hold years worth of information about our whereabouts. If that is not a unreasonable search, I don’t know what is.
Given these circumstances, the public must be as informed as possible as to the information we may be carrying, and how it can be used against us. To opponents of privacy like Mr. Pogue I ask: Why shouldn’t we hold our devices to higher standards? I hope our courts can recognize the increasing importance of cell phone privacy, and support those rights as the Ohio Supreme Court did in 2009. Beyond that, Apple, RIM, Google: You owe us all an explanation as to why our devices store our location data indefinitely.