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Reports of location tracking put Apple and Google on the spot

Another privacy flap was underway this week after two researchers reported in a blog post that iPhones were gathering and storing detailed information about the location and movement of their owners. This information could in turn be used by Apple to build massive databases for providing location-based advertising and other services.

Reporters started asking questions after the two security researchers, Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden, recently discovered that iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads stored user location information in unencrypted files. The researchers developed an app called iPhone Tracker, which when synced to an iPhone or iPad can map all the location data recorded by the devices. The result is an eerily accurate trail of exactly where the iPhone or iPad user has been.

Since then, other researchers have found that Android phones are doing the exact same thing, allowing both Apple and Google to capture and store a history of every user’s whereabouts.

But isn’t this data already stored by your cell phone provider? Hasn’t law enforcement been using this information for years to pinpoint a suspect’s proximity to a crime scene or confirm an alibi? True, but as Allen and Warden point out, that data lives behind a firewall and it normally takes a court order to gain access. Apparently, the location data stored on a smartphone is available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone.

Although the tracking data could be useful to private investigators and divorce lawyers, it’s also very valuable for local businesses. Think of how much more efficient a mobile advertising campaign would be if businesses only targeted individuals they knew lived near or walked by their store each day. Research firm Gartner Inc. estimates the market for location-based services is already worth $2.9 billion and expects it to more than triple in value over the next three years, which clearly explains Apple’s and Google’s interest in this area.

Of course, the question is: Does any of this matter? Should you care if Apple or anyone else is tracking your whereabouts? That entirely depends on you. Some people take every opportunity to broadcast their location, regularly checking in on Foursquare or Facebook Places. Others allow dozens of unknown third parties to track their location by downloading apps like The Weather Channel and Gas Buddy.

But the key here is consumer choice. There is a big difference between temporarily opting-in to location-based services to find cheap gas or locate a Starbucks, and agreeing to have our movements tracked at all times. Apple and Google have yet to issue formal statements on the current controversy but it looks like they have some serious explaining to do!

Does it bother you to think that Apple or Google is tracking all your movements? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom.

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