All About you

IN Media Freedom | 30/04/2011
Personal data is being perilously retained on the Web
and its time we gave serious thought to how much of us we should put online, says NANDAGOPAL RAJAN
I was in Chennai last week, my first visit to the southern metro. To make sure I did not get lost in this strange city, I often switched on the Google Maps software on my phone to pinpoint my location and to search for directions. With just a few seconds of configuration using cellphone towers, I knew where I was. So did Google. And the rest of the world, for I was also logged in to Google’s Latitude, which shows the location of users on a map.
Thankfully, my app works only when I switch it on. But if you are using an Apple iPhone or a high-end iPad with 3G, or a smart phone running on Google’s Android OS, similar data is being transmitted to company servers all the time. So Apple and Google keep a record of where exactly their users have been, how much time they spend at a location and how frequently they visit certain spots. In most countries, a court order is mandatory for even government agencies to keep such records.
To make matters worse, people using the fancy iPhone and
Android apps unwittingly give away more private information. Apple knows you were in a certain part of a city looking for an Italian restaurant, or worse. You might have followed this up with a tweet or a Facebook post about your experience at the eatery. Thankfully, most companies don’t misuse such information. But what if they did? The next time you went to the same part of town, you could get a message saying why not try ABC Italian Restaurant, since you didn’t like XYZ last time.
If you think that is bad, the truth is this kind of data retention is comparatively less harmful. Take Facebook, for instance. What started as Mark Zuckerberg’s little college website now knows the best-kept secrets of roughly 600 million people. Most of us don’t care, but the Facebook headquarters in Palo Alto, California, knows everything about you — who you are married to, or dating, your favourite TV show, political affiliation, even the colour of your underwear, if you were stupid enough to post about it. Anyone who has used the Facebook photo uploader of late knows it can recognise most of your friends, and that too without any human help.
But then just a fraction of Facebook users ends up giving credit card information to the company. No such luck for the 77 million members in Sony’s PlayStation network who have to give credit card details along with other personal data. After reports that most of this information was hacked into last week, Sony is running for cover. While the company is working with law-enforcement agencies to catch the culprits, it’s also asking users to exercise caution. The only saving grace here could be the fact that most hackers attempt such breaches just for the kick of it, and don’t intend to misuse data.
Meanwhile, faced with anger from customers and governments across the world, Apple finally acknowledged that it had made mistakes. CEO Steve Jobs, who has been on medical leave, gave an interview explaining the company’s delay in coming up with a response to what the blogs are now calling the “iSpy” controversy. “The first thing we always do when a problem is brought to us is we try to isolate it and find out if it is real. It took us about a week to do an investigation and write a response, which is fairly quick for something this technically complicated,” he said. “We haven’t been tracking anybody... never have, never will.” Google too conceded that it had collected similar location data through its Android phones .
It was up to the Apple website to publish a Q&A explaining that it was only “maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested”. The company says all data with it is anonymous and encrypted and it cannot identify the source of this data.
But tech blogger John Grubber knows there’s a bug in Apple’s technology. He writes in his blog “Daring Fireball”: “...historical data should be getting culled but isn’t, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight, that is, someone wrote the code to cache location data but never wrote code to cull non-recent entries from the cache, so that a database that’s meant to serve as a cache
of your recent location data is instead a persistent log of your location history.”
Apple is sure to fix the bug with a software update, but it’s time we gave a serious thought to how much of us we should put online.
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