The hubbub over location tracking in iPhones and Droid phones seems a bit of a tempest in a 21st century teapot.
Let's face it. Technology has invaded our lives and it is an amoral force. Neither good nor bad on its own, it has the potential to make life easier and better while also hacking away another piece of that increasingly antiquated concept, privacy. The consequences for loss of privacy can be devastating.
News broke last week about the tracking abilities of cell phones, but, in fact, it is hardly surprising. Owners can use their smart phones to provide GPS directions, meaning the phone has to figure out where you are. The phones can also be used to find nearby services -- restaurants, gas stations, banks etc. -- with the same condition: It first has to know where you are.
The controversy, though, had more to do with what the phone does with that information than the simple fact that it gathers it. It can store the information on the phone, where it is generally inaccessible, or if the phone is synched, on a computer where it is easily accessible. Apple also retrieves the information from iPhones, but claims it does so anonymously.
Privacy watchdogs warn that location data can expose very private details of someone's life. Databases filled with such information, they fear, could become inviting targets for hackers, stalkers, divorce attorneys and, of course, law enforcement agents.
The big questions, really, are what does the public know about this and, more fundamentally, what are the standards for gathering, using and protecting this information and for informing the public about those standards?
That's what regulators need to focus on because, again, let's face it: This genie is not going back into the bottle.
We can complain about it all we want, but we like our GPS too much. It's also helpful for emergency officials to be able to know exactly where you are if you call 911 from one of these phones. But there needs to be an accepted policy -- a law, if necessary -- on the issues associated with the creation, use and storage of the data.
A Senate Judiciary Subcommittee is planning a hearing on the matter next month. The Federal Communications Commission is looking at what rules should apply.
Police and the U.S. Justice Department argue they need no warrant to pry into data on the phones of people they have arrested. We have no problem with law enforcement using this information to solve crimes; it can be a valuable tool.
Still, it's preposterous to assert that it doesn't fall under Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable search. The information isn't going anywhere once police have the phone, so there is no reason not to insist upon a warrant.
Such are the issues that arise as technology erodes our privacy, and it's only just begun. The changes that have occurred in the past 10 years can't be seen as anything more than prelude to the risks and benefits that increasing sophistication will bring. That's why we need standards.