NEW YORK (MainStreet) — If consumers didn’t have enough privacy problems to worry about in the digital age, a new report has found that anyone who owns an iPhone, iPad or Android phone with GPS enabled has had each of their movements tracked periodically and stored in an encrypted file on the device that is sometimes sent out to companies.
Technically speaking, the data in the file doesn’t actually label each location as your house or your office or your kid’s school, but nonetheless, looking at the data could be enough to deduce one’s routines, whether it’s your commute to work, the stores you frequent on the weekends or any road trips you’ve taken in recent months.
As of now, consumers who own any of these devices have relatively few options available. Theoretically, they can turn off the GPS function to eliminate the possibility of being tracked from one place to the next, but doing so would also prevent users from using the map on the device to find directions, or from using check-in services like Foursquare and Facebook Places. Even if you’re willing to do this, a separate test conducted by The Wall Street Journal found that even this doesn’t stop the tracking from taking place.
Short of that, users effectively have two options: ditch the devices or accept the fact that they are being tracked. As it turns out, many consumers now are choosing to do the latter, and not just accepting the tracking, but embracing it.
Pete Warden and Alasdair Allen, the two researchers behind the initial report that sparked the controversy, also released a downloadable application that lets iPhone users in particular find the file on their device and translate the location data onto a map.
The application works by scanning through the files that were backed up after the last time you synched your iPhone with your computer and picks out the one file that contains your cellular location data. That data includes information about your latitude and longitude, which the researchers use to map the information. Users will see dots of varying sizes and colors based on the number of times they were tagged near a particular location. So, for example, you’ll see a large blue dot near your home and a small orange dot at that diner you stopped at once on your trip down south. What’s more, users can zoom in on the map and even view the data over time, to trace their movements in chronological order.
The application itself is stored on each person’s computer, and mapped out information is not transmitted to anyone. Instead, it just provides users with the ability to get a glimpse at the “secrets” their phone is sharing about them, and enjoy a little digital nostalgia in the process.
Already, dozens of users from places as far away as Seattle and Atlanta, and even countries like the U.K, have uploaded these maps to photo-sharing sites like Flickr. Rather than use the pictures as a rallying cry, the users have chosen to see the silver lining of the situation.
“The nice thing is, I can point to just about every one of the out of town dots, and remember happy hikes, meals with friends, setting out on exciting journeys,” one Flickr user from London wrote. “Personally, I'm OK with the iPhone storing information about where I've been. It's not like I'm not already tweeting about it, uploading photos to Flickr, reviewing things on Tripadvisor and so on.”
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