The growing furore over the gathering and retention of location data by smartphones reminds me very strongly of a joke that I heard first in the school playground many years ago. ‘Why does a dog lick his balls? Because he can.’
The same is true about smartphone operators. Why do they gather location data? Because they can. Technically, they can, because of the very nature of smartphones. Legally they can, because our laws over this kind of thing are obtuse and opaque – and because they understand the way they can get ‘consent’ through the small print of terms and conditions that no-one ever reads, let alone understands.
A lot of the discussion about the current furore has centred around the individual companies concerned, and brought out all the usual views of the merits or otherwise of Apple, Google and Microsoft – but whether you consider each of them to be fancified show-bred French poodles, friendly and loveable Labradors or ageing but far from toothless Rottweilers, they’re all dogs, and dogs will be dogs. Even the best behaved and most presentable show dog will lick his balls if he’s allowed to.
Three questions arise for me. Firstly, why are people surprised? Many people seem to be genuinely shocked by what has been revealed – even people who know a great deal about the subject. Is it really such a surprise? We’ve known about the capabilities of smartphones since they first emerged, and about the behaviour of all the companies involved for even longer. Dogs will be dogs.
The second question is whether any of it matters – and for me the answer is clear. Of course it matters, and matters a lot. That doesn’t mean that we need to panic, or need to throw our iPhones, Blackberries and HTCs in the nearest river – just that we need to aware of what is going on, and do what we can to ameliorate or manage the situation.
That brings me to the last question – what, if anything, can be done about it? Well, if we were talking about dogs, the answer would be simple: make sure they’re well trained, and well managed. If badly looked after, dogs behave badly. If they’re well trained, they can be very useful, helpful and excellent pets. They can help us in our personal lives, in our work and in many social situations – but you still need to train them and manage them. We need to do the same for the likes of Apple, Google and Microsoft. Show them who’s boss – using all the tools we can to do so. That means putting the right laws in place, but also using our powers as consumers, as advocates, and lobbyists.
If dogs know what they can do and what they can’t, they’ll behave much better. It's very hard to train a dog not to lick his balls - and probably just as hard to train companies like Apple, Google and Microsoft not to push the limits of privacy - but it can be done. We need to tell them that this kind of thing is not acceptable – and back up what we say with the law and with our money. If we don’t want our location data gathered, we need to be clear about it.
My personal view is that we have the right not to have this kind of thing happen to us - and that we need to proclaim that right (and other rights) loud and clear.