[Air-L] Apple surveilling children ... Ethical? Legal?

Seda Guerses sguerses at esat.kuleuven.be
Tue Apr 26 02:34:03 PDT 2011

dear michael, 

from a privacy and surveillance studies perspective, there are a number of ethical questions/issues, which include the following:
1) there is the usual problem of population surveillance and social sorting. as phone companies move onto 4g, i hear from different sources that they are moving towards voip and multi-layer quality system: if the customer pays more she will get better sound and connectivity quality and if not than something that the customer will be happy with (supposedly). given that apple or google or for that matter any other service provider can profile their profitable customers and decide where to improve their services, and where to let the infrastructure remain under-serviced etc. is a typical problem of social sorting. this is not specific to apple. however, thanks to the fact that this data is found, we now know that they have the dataset to do this. whether they do this, and what their criteria are for selecting "good customers" and "unimportant customers" (or what those categories are) is still not transparent to anyone but those companies. 

2) for exactly the advantages of counter-surveillance that it makes possible, as well as arguments that say that this data should not only be available to private/for-profit companies, but also to a greater public who might want to use this data for non-profit projects, there is an argument to be made to keep the data accessible and available to whoever owns the phone, to allow them to share this data with peers or parties they want to collaborate with on public projects.

3) the problem with the above is that it assumes that phone owners will always have the legal protections granted to make sure that they can use the data in their phones/backup devices only for whatever it is they want to use it for and the collection of this data by any party is not going to cause any undesirable affects and harms. it turns out this is a naive position. we live in a world, where police and law enforcement have made a practice out of claiming any data they can get their sensors on. we had a similar problem in belgium, although at a much smaller scale: mobib, the access card for public transportation in brussels has an rfid chip that is not encrypted/protected and includes the name, address and the last three locations of the person. since the card includes an rfid chip, it enables anybody in the vicinity to read the contents of the card. while typical ghastly stories are of children being kidnapped, people being stalked, or spouses querying each others' whereabouts (which make popular headlines), the less popular stories are of police profiling protesters, employers their employees, etc. and that without the knowledge of the person holding the card. given that phones have become very important for political action across the world, but also in general to the organization of life, the description of the subject, who is free and has nothing too hide, and who can selectively disclose the location data  on her phone is definitely not universal (whether such a subject exists is another question). as you are also pointing out, such a depiction erases matters of gender, age, race, class etc. and dismisses the power relations that are reconfigured through such data. 

4) further, the reduction of location data to a series of coordinates also leaves out the fact that this data makes sense when it is connected within and across contexts. especially smart phones collect a lot of other data, which when linked with location data, allows for very elaborate narrations of the subject, to herself, but also to others. i think we need to find a way to talk about the ethical and legal problems, while taking into consideration how the design and use of these technologies reconfigure power relationships globally for different subjects/communities. 

5)  i can imagine this will be a fun and challenging question for colleagues at the technology and law departments. my intuition is that a question can be raised about the proportionality of the collection of so much potentially sensitive data. but then legislation like the eu data protection directive looks at such collection only in relation to the data collectors and processors: in this case, it is completely legal for telecom providers to collect this data. possibly, the privacy articles from the european convention of human rights have to be invoked to grant legal protection to such data on a device owned/controlled by the user. if i hear something back from some of our colleagues, i would be happy to let you know.

i am aware that this is a rather data-centric view of things, i nevertheless hope it is helpful.

Message: 1
Date: Sun, 24 Apr 2011 20:56:37 -0500
From: Michael Zimmer <zimmerm at uwm.edu>
To: aoir list <air-l at aoir.org>
Subject: Re: [Air-L] Apple surveilling children ... Ethical? Legal?
Message-ID: <A3A290AA-5412-4FD1-8859-C9BBF486B615 at uwm.edu>
Content-Type: text/plain;	charset=windows-1252

That cellphone companies and operating systems track locations of phones isn't all that surprising (how long have you been with your current mobile provider?  They have locational data on you for that amount of time, too). Apple, like most everyone else, wants to have a good mapping of locations where its products are used, and it can do that through triangulating cell towers, wi-fi locations, etc (Essentially the same reason that Google was collecting wi-fi data with its Street View cars). The core problem here is that Apple is syncing an unencrypted file with any computer the phone connects with, which seems to serve little use value.

I've been digging around, and hope to find time to blog about this. In a nutshell, I'm leaning towards Occam's razor as an explanation (bad code design), rather than evilness.  That, certainly, isn't meant to excuse what is happening, but just to contextualize it.

Some useful background reading:

How Apple tracks your location without consent, and why it matters - Ars Technica

Apple Is Tracking You To Build Something Very Valuable: Its Location Database

Do Apple, Google and Microsoft Know Your Every Step? A Handy Chart - Gizmodo

-Michael Zimmer

Michael Zimmer, PhD
Assistant Professor, School of Information Studies
Co-Director, Center for Information Policy Research
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee
e: zimmerm at uwm.edu
w: www.michaelzimmer.org

More information about the Air-L mailing list