The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading nonprofit organization advocating for Internet privacy, told Mission Local this week that the iPhone’s ability to track locations can create “a pretty intimate picture” of the owner’s life.
The response from the Mission District? Everything from “So what?” among civilians to fascination among techies, for whom iPhones are practically dress code.
“I think I had an expectation that I’m trackable, that [cell phone] companies know exactly what I’m doing and when,” said 23-year-old Nicholas Navarro as he sat, laptop open, at Coffee Bar in the Mission. “It comes with the territory.”
Sure, there were a few skeptics, but even more surprising than the offhand way in which many in the Mission reacted to the tracking was the response of Mission techies. “To be able to look at where you generally hang out in a city would be really cool,” said Alex Lambert, an app developer who has helped design, among other things, a program that tells you where the nearest PBR can be had.
The 29-year-old, who already had his iPhone data file downloaded to his MacBook desktop, was delighted to hear that one of the researchers who revealed Apple’s practices last week has developed an app to help users visualize the data for themselves. He sees the information as a boon.
But those who advocate for digital privacy rights say such sentiments ignore the broader dangers of collecting such personal information.
“It can create a pretty intimate picture of what you do on a daily basis,” said Rebecca Jeschke, a spokeswoman for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which has its main office on Shotwell Street in the Mission. “When these records are in aggregate, they become even more sensitive than they are right now.”
The dangers, Jeschke said, are twofold. Anyone with access to your phone or computer — from jealous spouses to thieves and hackers — could have a record of your whereabouts.
Secondly, the availability of the technology also means a new stream of information that could flow directly to law enforcement and other government officials.
For most here, however, the expectation of privacy in an increasingly wired world is as low as AT&T’s notorious cellular signal, and the tracking of personal data is an accepted fact of life.
“You figure that it’s bound to happen sooner or later,” shrugged Danny Bowien, chef/owner of Mission Chinese Food, as he thumbed through his iPhone 4 at Stable Cafe. When Bowien’s phone was stolen recently, he said he was more concerned about someone using the data he elects to store on the device — banking information, passwords and email.
As for the concept of Big Brother tracking his every move, Bowien doesn’t think about it much. “I typically try to keep my nose pretty clean, and I don’t think I’m that important.”
The sentiment was echoed by a number of users who think they’re simply too boring to have their movements tracked.
“We’re talking about me being one out of millions and millions of users,” said Rob Campo, a 35-year-old architect carrying an Android phone.
Google has been found to track location information in ways similar to the iPhone, although the company maintains the cache is cleared and restarted after a certain number of data points is collected. “I just don’t see them bringing out the monocle and looking at me, specifically.”
Another woman, who works as a human rights lawyer, agreed. “I assume that privacy in the age of technology is gone, or at least very limited,” she explained. “Theoretically I think there could be a danger, and I understand it’s disturbing. But personally, I don’t really care.”
She declined, however, to give her name, noting that, after all, this was an article about privacy.
“But I’m still using it,” she added, nodding at her iPhone on the table.
Even those who are worried about the wider implications say the discovery comes as no surprise.
“To have the world at your fingertips on your iPhone…there’s obviously going to be negative aspects that come with that technology,” said 24-year-old Mac Parish, a San Francisco local who has been living in Kenya for the past month.
Anyone tracking him, he said, wouldn’t discover much: He’s usually either at work or in cafes. But for him the potential abuses outweigh such mundane moments. “People are entitled to their privacy, even if they are super-boring.”
Heather Mills, 37, agreed, but said it’s hard to avoid the exposure. “We’re leaving a footprint wherever we go, whatever we do, without really realizing it.”
Mills still has an expectation of privacy for herself, even as she sat listening to a phone conversation on her computer, on an open WiFi network at Coffee Bar. But, she added, that’s changing. “I think you’re already seeing it in younger generations, they already have a different expectation of privacy.”
Even some from older generations have adapted to this view. Architect Malcolm Davis, who works above Stable and is 48, doesn’t agree with the level of tracking that companies can do through cell phones. But he’s already looking at privacy and technology in new ways. “It’s really a new way of being out in public. Going online is now like walking out your front door.”
Others said their lives are already an open book. “I don’t feel like I have too many things to bare on my phone,” said 33-year-old Alan Reinhardt, a musician who lives in the city. “Let them take what they want. What could they possibly do?”
There’s a lot that can be done with the data, Jeschke said — especially if it’s in the wrong hands.
Wireless carriers already work with police to provide location data for their network users, Jeschke said. Pinning that data to the device itself adds another layer to the ongoing debate. “This is a hardware device that has created a new record on you,” Jeschke said, “and it’s a very good question to wonder what kinds of other records are being kept on you that you don’t know about. I think lots of people here do know that they’re carrying a tracking beacon around in their pocket, but they don’t necessarily know law enforcement is making such good use of this.”
Jeschke hopes the latest media attention will serve as a wake-up call. “We shouldn’t have to be Luddites in order to get privacy,” she said, acknowledging that she probably won’t stop syncing her own iPhone to her MacBook as a result. “We get to decide what our digital future looks like. Is this going to be a trend where in order to use this cool gadget, I have to let you do whatever you want with my private information?”
That question didn’t seem near to hand for some techies. In fact, they weren’t so much alarmed as excited by the news that such data was being tracked on their phones.
Steven Simitzis, an independent app developer who often works at the Summit, knows his reaction isn’t typical. “I was kind of like, ‘Ooh, this is cool. It could be fun to play around with this data,’” said the 36-year-old. Simitzis said such data could be helpful in determining everything from transit trends to accurate facts about diet in populations. “I’m kind of an information junkie. If I could have everything I do recorded, I would.”
When his mother called him last week with the “news” that his phone could be tracking him, he said he reminded her that her credit card company was tracking her purchases.
Simitzis says those registering concerns now are late to the game. “If you’re alarmed about the data being on your device, then you just shouldn’t have a cell phone,” he said with a shrug. “The data is being stored already, anyway.”