Why the phony LocationGate scandal targets fear of Apple’s iOS more than Android
April 25th, 2011
Daniel Eran Dilger
According to hysterical reports of fear mongers, Apple and Google are tracking your every move using smartphones, compiling a historical trail they can then profit from. That’s wrong, here’s why.
The phony outrage of the LocationGate scandal
If there is anything less appropriate than a technologically ignorant media covering the subtleties of the manufactured LocationGate phony-scandal, it’s the investigative policing by US and EU politicians who have suspended their efforts to rectify the economy, housing, employment and various other natural and man-made disasters in order to tackle the idea of whether smartphones might be recording one’s location the same way mobile towers and phone companies have since the beginning of mobile telephony.
Sure, there is some concern warranted by a system that can (under duress) report where you have been (just like your phone bill, or your FastTrack bridge toll transponder, or key fobs, or those ‘swipe your license and take your photo upon entering’ clubs). In the case of a smartphone, it might be unexpected news to some less technically inclined individuals that the device is maintaining a database of locations in order to be able to report your current location immediately when you demand that it does, say when you pull up Google Maps and ask where you are.
A dedicated GPS device can take a minute or more to calculate your location, but smartphone users demand a fast answer, whether they are looking up a location-based search of nearby restaurants, or simply tagging the photos they snap with automatic geolocation metadata that might be useful in reconstructing events after the fact when organizing an album.
To perform fast lookups, a smartphone has to remember landmarks, relying upon mobile phone radio towers or nearby WiFi hotspots, the only objects it can really see around itself. There’s certainly room for critical discussion about how much of this data the device should remember and how well it secures this data from potential theft, but of all the secret or potentially embarrassing data on a smartphone, I’d say that photos, emails, text messages and documents are all far more sensitive information than a history of general location recordings.
Note that none of this is available to anyone unless they have your smartphone. If you lose your phone, the generalized path your phone has followed over the past year should be the least of your worries. Fortunately, location services can also kick in to help remotely erase your device, making it a solution to the very problem fear-mongers are propagating about it.
In any event, an issue of some slight interest has ballooned into a fiery controversy elevated to the top page of major American newspapers, pushing aside their usual top coverage of subjects ranging from celebrities’ hair to their suspended jail sentences for bad behavior. Once that happens, elected officials start asking hard questions, such as “why are you collecting location data on a device with a primary function related to reporting one’s location?”
A better question would be: who stands to benefit from location services gone bad, and what forces will best deter misuse of such data by those who maintain it?
Risk and Reward: who benefits from location tracking?
Apple’s primary reason behind everything it does is related to making attractive hardware that people will want to buy. The company works hard on everything from the ease of use of the software to the device’s outward appearance and even its packaging, striving to strike a balance between a fun to open box that adds sophistication and allure to the ownership experience, while also being small and easy to ship and worthy of attention for its efforts in reducing packaging waste and its related environmental impact. All of those things are intended to enhance the likelihood of a hardware buyer’s transaction.
When Apple tracks your location, it’s being motivated by the need to provide a rapid location fix and deliver a clever assortment of applications that make use of such information, ranging from maps to photo geolocation to remote device location. Just as with its packaging design, Apple strives to balance such handy utility with pragmatic concerns about location safety. It allows you to turn off location services and forces third parties to ask for permission before using the data, given that your location may at times be something you don’t what to share.
But the core motivation behind all of Apple’s location-related efforts remains the same as everything else the company does: it’s working to sell you hardware. Selling you a bad device that doesn’t work right, or fast enough, or which jumps through too many hoops, or which exposes too much data to potential spammers or even malicious third parties will result in lower sales for Apple. That aligns the company’s efforts with the needs and desires of its customers.
It’s capitalism at work, doing what capitalism does best: aligning the needs of buyers with the needs of suppliers, making profits a positive motivation for fulfilling everyone’s demands as efficiently as possible. In Apple’s case, location tracking primarily benefits consumers, by design of a company that aims everything it does at generating hardware sales directly to end users.
Google is not Apple
Sure, both Apple and Google employ the same kinds of scientists (often with lots of cross pollination). But Google doesn’t sell consumers anything directly. Instead, it sells consumers to advertisers. Google is not a company that produces products to entice consumers to buy them. It produces products that can be used to sell the attention of consumers to advertisers. The end product Google sells is not hardware nor even software, but audiences.
Google is therefore a lot like Facebook and Twitter and Fox News and roadside billboards. Consumers might find some benefit to viewing these things, but the real value is the fact that they are viewing them, something that Google and Facebook and Twitter and News Corp and Clear Channel turn around and sell to their real customers, the advertisers wishing to propagate a message.
The needs of Google-like companies are therefore not necessarily aligned with the needs of consumers. Consumers get what is available, not what they want, because they’re not in a position to demand anything. They’re not really paying to use Google or Facebook or Twitter or TV or billboards; they get it ostensibly for “free,” even though they are paying for all those things indirectly. Consumers can threaten to leave or stop using them, but this is not an easy decision to make given the barriers erected around the Google Way that thwart defection.
The Google Way
This makes the Google Way much more like communism. There is no choice for consumers; they can only attempt to leave the captive region by hopping over high walls and racing for less totalitarian pastures. If they stay, they enjoy a communist paradise where an elite intellectual class makes decisions for them without their input, and where the surrounding media blesses and praises and reveres everything being done by the leaders as examples of idealistic progress.
Ironically, people who like the Google Way often turn around and call those who choose to use Apple products slaves and sheep and conformist followers, apparently unaware of how comical this is coming from a group of people unable to even vote with their dollars. The Eastern Bloc formerly also mocked the West as being slaves of commerce and unable to benefit from the glorious freedom afforded by communism, where everything was removed from proprietary ownership and was instead collectively maintained by a system run by geniuses, the same idea behind the Open Software movement.
In retrospect, however, economic communism as practiced by the USSR and China didn’t really work out that well. Today, those nations have since adopted much of the behaviors of the West in acknowledgment that their own economic systems simply weren’t working, much as Samsung and Motorola and HP and Nokia and Microsoft have closely copied Apple after discovering that their own efforts at indirect corporate partnerships that delivered non-choices to consumers had failed at the feet of Apple’s success.
Under the Google Way, issues related to location services shift from being a consumer feature (which may have some unintended, unanticipated and unpleasant consequences) to being a power maintenance feature that is aimed primarily at keeping the existing system in place. So while, for example, fencing in the West might be sold to keep farmers’ animals contained, under communism fencing was primarily used to keep people from leaving the glorious communist paradise.
The communist paradise
Identically, while location services on the iPhone are designed to power valuable and attractive consumer-facing features (which ultimate sell hardware), in the Android world it is used to fuel identity collection aimed at delivering more profitable advertising that then promises to make everything else free. Android users are therefore kept tightly bound to the platform through the promise that their devices will be cheap, their apps will be free and content will cost nothing.
The kind of people who are attracted to low cost or free services at the expense of being able to make their own choices by voting with their dollars are the most ardent supporters of Android. People who prefer to pay specifically for what they want, tailor their experience to their own personal whims using dollar-lubricated transactions and maintain control over their sense of independence are the type of people who most vociferously support Apple’s mobile products.
This explains why Android has so few valuable apps. The USSR also lacked a variety of different kinds of food products, for example. Why would one need multiple choices in the communist paradise where everything was free anyway? And who would be motivated to create all sorts of alternative choices under a system where the intellectuals were already generating far superior free ones?
The way Android enthusiasts hail their free copy of the ad-supported Angry Birds reminds me of East Germans lining up to get a Trabant. Neither really deserved to be lauded as a symbol of the prowess of communism.
Compare the several commercial GPS apps available on iOS with the only real option for Android: Google Maps Navigation. Yes, Google’s free app is nice. The problem is that Google doesn’t also create The Best selection of games, utilities, inventive new services and everything else on Earth as represented by the more than a third of a million apps available in the iOS App Store. Google simply can’t; it doesn’t employ that many developers.
Communism delivered nice subways, hospitals, space programs, and certain other features that were competitive or in some cases ahead of the West. But overall, it could not deliver the pace of progress that capitalism did. The reason is not because of the magical system of western capitalism, which has itself failed miserably in some respects over and over, from dust bowls and monoculture farming to dependance upon foreign oil. Capitalism has worked best because it does the best job of preventing one limited group of people from making too many critical decisions, just as democracy works best by limiting any one group from getting too much power.
The power of choice
There is nothing wrong with communism conceptually. However, there is a very real problem in that to perform on a mass scale, it requires that a few people make long term planning decisions that impact lots of people who have little to no voice in how things will be carried out. If they could provide input, it would make the system so slow that nothing could ever happen (much like San Francisco).
Capitalism, on the other hand, can afford millions of people to make limited-scope decisions based entirely upon small transactions of voting with their dollars. If America had been taken over by communists in 2009, as represented by the elite tech media, they would have divested Apple’s resources and given them to Palm, which seemed to have eclipsed Apple technologically, at least in the view of people who don’t like Apple. That would have been devastating for Apple and America, because Palm would have collapsed under its own efforts despite any infusion of Apple’s billions simply because it wasn’t nearly as prepared to deliver anything as those geniuses in the media originally surmised.
In 2010, the communists would have taken Apple’s cash and given it to Android licensees, allowing them to put out more devices, ostensibly with more choices for consumers. That too would have been disastrous, because those choices were as phony as the choices under Microsoft’s PlaysForSure; they were all the same choice dressed up in a variety of different hardware gimmicks or short term cost saving ploys, ranging from HTC’s awful screens to Motorola’s spongy keypads.
A thousand phony “choices” under the umbrella of Microsoft of Google is like being able to pick from one of a thousand different shapes of an Irish Potato in 1945. The problem is that they are all the same thing, suffering from the same blight. Both hypothetical fiascos would be the result of a few people with limited perspective making all the decisions instead of allowing millions of consumers to make real choice.
In a really progressive, economically liberal market, anyone can bring their products without the elitist seal of approval of Android or Flash or Java or Windows or CNET reviewers biased to support a monoculture platform. That has enabled millions of people to vote with their dollars to rapidly make Apple the most valuable tech company in the world over the last half decade.
In this type of market, consumers decide whether they want an iOS device maintained by Apple, a webOS device built by HP, a Blackberry developed by RIM, a WP7 model created by Microsoft and Nokia, or an Android device created by Google and Samsung. That’s real choice, and it reflects the market for other real and completive markets such as cars, where one can buy a Mazda rebranded by Ford, but can also buy an original design by Kia, or BMW, or Honda, or GM. They are real choices, not various marquees applied to a generic operating system or reference design platform developed by one global company.
That’s because capitalism begins to fail just as badly as communism when the power of choice is functionally eliminated. Remove government oversight, and corporations bloom into the equivalent of communist supreme soviet boards, making all the far reaching decisions internally and rendering the votes of consumers as irrelevant. Reduce competition and choice evaporates. Conglomerate media or production to a few massive companies and nobody has the ability to compete.
Choice demands accountability
The day that Apple becomes the only choice in PCs and smartphones is the day interference will be needed to induce competition. Until then, Apple is profiting greatly from the power of choice it offers in a variety of markets where there is little or no real choice. And despite Apple’s size and profits, it’s ability to thrive is dependent upon making consumers happy, something Android doesn’t have to do. All Android has to do is keep down prices and glut the market with low end options.
There is little accountability tied to such a trap of free or cheap products. No matter how bad Android’s malware, software selection, stability, usability, fragmentation or spyware problems get, it will still have a captive audience as long as it can be propagated cheaply via adware, just as Windows survived decades of bad behavior without ever fomenting demands that it be eradicated as a global pest.
While there will always be a market for cheap, low quality processed food, the emergence of Apple as a high value brand indicates that the world is hungry for premium choices and willing to vote for these choices with its dollars. The people who are choosey demand more, which explains why Apple produces a premium product and supports it better.
Apple is also regularly targeted with a seasonal ControversyGate wiped into a frenzy by the tech media, which seems to prefer the inherent predictability of the communist paradise ruled over by a single supreme technology soviet platform. After all, it was certainly easier to be the editor of Pravda than to report as a real journalist in the West. One requires effort, while the other only requires repeating the talking points of the leading monoculture paying for advertisements to the captive audience of a communist paradise.