Sen. Franken Quizzes Apple Over Location Logs

You’ve heard of the kerfuffle surrounding a log file on iOS 4 devices whose entries contain, troublingly, time and position data. I know you have because I have. Ever the good son, I enjoyed a coffee with my mother this afternoon and she asked me if I’d heard about it. There’s been an awful lot of opinion pieces written about this mis-feature but I’m with Dan Moren and his Don’t Panic argument.

I’d chalked up these revelations as a Molehill-cum-Montain issue. Looking at the data involved I had a high degree of confidence that this was either a bug or an oversight. I could envision technical reasons for this caching and engineering reasons for why it might be accumulating either longer than expected or even why just not caring how much backlog was kept might be a valid trade off in terms of engineering time spent on the problem.

I had opinions on the matter but none that wouldn’t be ably covered elsewhere and so had no plans to comment. Then I came across a piece at Talking Points Memo, an American political news blog, that said Senator Al Franken had written a letter to Steve Jobs asking for the specifics of the situation.

My initial impression, as I wrote to a friend privately, was, “Man … someone is going to be working this weekend!” The letter read as sincere, concerned and to the point. Naïve from a technical perspective perhaps but, ultimately, on point and crystallized the sort of questions the public was asking either through the media or through citizen soapboxeries like Twitter. By “someone” I meant the segment of Apple that comprised the engineers who’d written this code and the public relations and management people who would no doubt be rushing to understand its details and the decision making process behind them. All these people were probably already at red alert due to coverage of the issue in the New York Times and on CNN. A concerned letter from a US Senator would’ve moved them all to the even more serious state of Redder Alert. The morning of Good Friday will see a bunch of people locked up in a cave who won’t re-emerge until Easter Monday with a fix in hand and some great messaging.

Still, I had nothing to say about the subject because, really, what’s there to debate?

And then, a very smart fella called another very smart fella an idiot on Twitter. “Kontra” (@counternotions) took issue with the tone of Senator Franken’s letter. You should read our conversation here. I don’t know Kontra personally but he seems like a sharp guy with a good understanding and an ability to communicate it. Arguing with someone you don’t know personally on the Internet is almost always a bad idea so I dove in.

The debate here appears to centre upon the role of a government in society. Should a government move to quickly and publicly secure answers from a business when there’s a possible danger to the rights of its citizens, or should the government defer until they’ve secured more data and inquire discreetly in order to engender a social environment less tumultuous for businesses?

I’d err on the side of a government calling out business shenanigans where it may see them. There is an argument to be made that uninformed media or government intervention and inquisition into a business may hinder it’s ability to innovate or even unfairly punish it for small oversights that are blown out of proportion. My position is that Franken’s questions don’t create a sufficient “chilling effect” that the damage done to the citizenry via the potential damage to Apple, Inc via lost sales outweighs the potential damage to the privacy rights of the citizenry that the Senator is concerned about. What if he is wrong and Apple loses a few sales? We won’t care once it’s time to bash on the next thing in the news cycle. If there is a privacy issue here concerning millions of iOS 4 customers then there’s some serious potential damage to the privacy rights of millions of citizens.

I’ll bet Senator Franken will have a set of answers to his questions by next week. His concern is, I believe, misplaced. On that point I believe Kontra and I are in agreement. But is worrying that untrusted code executing on a Mac or iOS device being able to steal a time-stamped log of where you’ve been “idiocy”? No, not at all. That is a genuine concern. Is it more of a concern than nefarious code reading your text messages or email? No, probably not. The thing is that just as people will download a movie and excuse themselves for not stealing anything “real” they perceive a breach of email accounts as awful but less horrific than some third party knowing where they are, physically, in the real world.

At the end of the day this location data may not be as important or as telling as some other personal data but people relate to it far more intimately. There’s a reason beyond it simply being related to Apple that this story gained traction. The idea of being tracked, as a human, is very scary stuff. The ancient sort of scary. The sort of scary that wiggles down subconsciously to the fight or flight level of reasoning.

So, though I’m an Apple fan, I think that Senator Franken asking Apple a few questions about why there’s an obviously overly long location log on their phones trumps the extra thousand or so units of iOS 4 devices Apple might’ve moved without this bad publicity.

That said and done, no one has yet asked the really interesting question — if this had happened once Apple was shipping an iOS device that backed up automatically to an Apple server how much more of a shit storm would this have been? A very shittier shit storm is the answer. I’ll bet there’s more than a few managers who’re thinking very carefully about how to make damn sure they don’t have to spend an Easter weekend working to prove to Stuart Smalley that they’re good enough, and smart enough, doggone it.