Beware of Unwanted Cell Phone Tracking Software

by Joe Mueller on August 18, 2009

The Internet is abuzz with the latest news that some GPS-enabled cell phones are automatically sending information like your GPS coordinates to third parties, often without notifying you of this activity.  The first to fall into this PR fiasco was the Palm Pre, which had their continuous and constant GPS tracking discovered by Joey Hess.  While the allegations that this cell phone tracking software actually is constant and continuous has not been officially confirmed or denied by Palm or major news outlets, there is a pretty damning statement released by Palm that seems to indicate that Mr. Hess finding are gospel truth:

Palm takes privacy very seriously, and offers users ways to turn data collecting services on and off. Our privacy policy is like many policies in the industry and includes very detailed language about potential scenarios in which we might use a customer’s information, all toward a goal of offering a great user experience. For instance, when location based services are used, we collect their information to give them relevant local results in Google Maps. We appreciate the trust that users give us with their information, and have no intention to violate that trust.

To me, this is a muddy statement that admits to the use of GPS cell phone tracking software to gather information on a users location.  While Palm is claiming that they would never do anything bad with this information, there is little doubt that a lot of bad can be done.

Palm Pre Cell Phone Tracking SoftwareAnother key issue with the Palm Pre debacle is that they did a piss poor job of informing users about the tracking going on behind the scenes.  Sure, they probably included it in their privacy policy – but let’s be honest here, no one, and I mean no one reads a privacy policy these days.  They are long.  They are boring.  And we generally have a hard time sifting through the legalese to find the real information that we want to know. One blogger pointed out that the responsible thing for Palm to have done in regards to their GPS cell phone tracking would have been to have forced users to opt in to the “feature” rather than turning it on automatically. That seems pretty sensible to me, but for whatever reason the folks at Palm decided otherwise.

The second brouhaha currently fomenting on the Internets is that some of the GPS cell phone tracking software for the iPhone sends your position information to third parties whenever you use certain apps. According to one developer friendly to hacking the iPhone (so they cannot be implicitly trusted) there is one mobile phone analytics package that is particularly “spyware-esque.” The name of the spyware-esque mobile phone analytics is Pinch Media and they provide support for several different iPhone apps.

What is reported as going on is that these applications using Pinch Media track the following information:

  • Your iPhone’s unique ID – which can link you directly to any activity that the phone engages in
  • iPhone model
  • OS version
  • Application version (in this case, camera zoom 1.x)
  • If the application is cracked/pirated
  • If your iPhone is jailbroken
  • Time and date you start the application
  • Time and date you close the application
  • Your current latitude & longitude
  • Your gender (if Facebook enabled)
  • Your birth month (if Facebook enabled)
  • Your birth year (if Facebook enabled)

That is a lot of data for a third party to have about you and your iPhone use.  While the iPhone does manually require that you opt in to all location monitoring applications, they do not necessarily require that developers disclose the exact bits of information being tracked or where they are being sent off to.

There is a text document that is terribly hard to read that offers some more information about different apps that are the worst privacy offenders.  It can be found here: http://textbin.com/y6223

Automatic Cell Phone Tracking Software and Privacy

The privacy implications of these actions by corporations is huge.  All steps down the road to tyranny begin with but a single step, and this is not good news for our children 50-75 years from now.  Once corporations and government agencies begin gathering this type of information on us it is going to be a short road to some form of oppressive regime.  If they aren’t trying to control us with fear, they will be trying to do it with pleasure – and the only solution that I can see is to make hard stands now as consumers.

While we are huge proponents of the massive benefit that can be derived from GPS tracking, we also feel like that this information should not be used for marketing or other purposes.  Placing a financial incentive on a person’s location information is only going to degrade a human brother into an object sought after for their capital and not as a person with thoughts, feelings and emotions.

We are huge fans of free GPS cell phone tracking software, thinking that it can help parents stay connected to their children, provide an awesome safety net for people of all ages, improve our fitness levels through fitness tracking programs, and even help us stay connected to our friends.  In time we hope to see GPS make commuting and all driving more efficient and “earth friendly,” end abduction and other forms of personal assault, and help keep the criminal element at bay.

Unfortunately, privacy concerns like the ones raised against Palm Pre and the iPhone will prevent ground being taken toward these ends.  While the cell phone tracking software could be utilized for great good for a great number of people, I fear that it will probably only be used to make the rich richer and the poor poorer.  That is not the future for GPS tracking that I would want, but it seems to be the future that just might be.

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