Pretty good coverage of the “iphone keeps track of where you’ve been” story in today’s NYT “Inquiries Grow Over Apple’s Data Collection Practices” and in David Pogue’s column yesterday (“Your iPhone Is Tracking You. So What?“). Not surprisingly, devices that have GPS capability (or even just cell tower triangulation capability) write the information down. Given how cheap and plentiful memory is, not surprising that they do so in ink.
This raises a generic issue: evanescent data (information that is detected, perhaps “acted” upon, and then discarded) will become increasingly rare. We should not be surprised that our machines rarely allow information to evaporate and it is important to note that this is not the same as saying that any particular big brother (or sister) is watching. Like their human counterparts, a machine that can “pay attention” is likely to remember — if my iPhone always know where it is, why wouldn’t it remember where it’s been?
It’s the opposite of provenience that matters — not where the information came from but where it might go to. Behavior always leaves traces — what varies is the degree to which the trace can be tied to its “author” and how easy or difficult it is to collect the traces and observe or extract patterns they may contain. These reports suggest that the data has always been there, but was relatively difficult to access. It’s only recently that, ironically, due to the work of the computer scientists who “outed” Apple, that there is an easy way to get at the information.
Setting aside the issue of nefarious intentions, we are reminded of the time-space work of the human geographers such as Nigel Thrift and Tommy Carlstein who did small scale studies of the space-time movements of people in local communities in the 1980s and since. And, too, we are reminded of the 2008 controversy stirred up when some scientists studying social networks used anonymized cell phone data on 100,000 users in an unnamed country.
Of course, the tracking of one’s device is not the same as the tracking of oneself. We can imagine iPhones that travel the world like that garden gnome in Amelie and people being proud not just of their own travels but where there phone has been.