Apple takes wrong turn as private data not so private

ALARM BELLS: "This data clearly could be used for improper purposes. And permission for its collection definitely wasn’t explicitly sought," Conal Hanna.
ALARM BELLS: "This data clearly could be used for improper purposes. And permission for its collection definitely wasn’t explicitly sought," Conal Hanna.

On Wednesday morning I got in my car to drive to work. As I turned the key in the ignition the radio news was documenting Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony to US Congress about data breaches that have happened on the company’s watch.

Last month, Apple CEO Tim Cook engaged in a bit of Silicon Valley schadenfreude when he questioned Facebook’s approach to personal data.

“Privacy to us is a human right. It’s a civil liberty,” Mr Cook declared, just a tad sanctimoniously, in an interview aired in the US this week.

But as I put the car into neutral in the driveway what I saw next made me think tech CEOs in glass houses should probably refrain from throwing stones.

I don’t use Apple maps but it has remained on my phone on the fourth screen as you swiped right from the home screen - in other words, at the furthest reaches of the phone solar system. 

From there, though, it clearly continued hoovering up my data in the background.

To be honest I had noticed some of these seemingly random traffic notifications before, and shaken my head at Apple’s misguided attempts to be useful. 

But it was the inclusion of my three-year-old daughter’s childcare service - by name - on this notification that made me really take note.

Here is an app that I don’t use that knows not only where my daughter goes to day care, but seemingly what days she goes and roughly what time we are taking her there. I don’t know about you, but I find that creepy.

"We're not going to traffic in your personal life," Mr Cook declared. Pardon the pun.

"We've never believed that these detailed profiles of people — that has incredibly deep personal information that is patched together from several sources — should exist."

I'm glad you feel that way Tim. But consider my surprise when trying to establish exactly how Apple was gleaning my childcare centre visitation habits. 

Under my Maps settings, was the line "Siri can suggest locations based on your Safari and app usage." That to me sounds suspiciously like stitching together a data profile of somebody.

I’m not paranoid enough to think Apple is using this data for nefarious Big Brother purposes. I think they’re attempting to be useful with this traffic service - even though for me it never has been. But this data clearly could be used for improper purposes. And permission for its collection definitely wasn’t explicitly sought.

As always, it’s the default settings that make the difference. If I had needed to turn this feature on, rather than turn it off, I never would have given permission.

And that’s where all the big tech companies - Apple, Facebook, Google and others - could make it quite simple. If the default for all of their features was off, and then every time you turned one on it told you specifically what data that feature would allow them to collect, and how it would be used, that would be a far more satisfying customer experience than some unwieldy fine print ‘T&Cs’ checkbox.

That would be quite easy for them to do. But the tech companies know discovery is about getting people to try things. Most of us are quite inert, so they are constantly looking for ways to put new features under our noses, and the default is almost always ‘on’. 

It’s about time users were put in the driver’s seat.

Fairfax Media’s Conal Hanna