04/26/2011 12:49 pm ET Updated Jun 26, 2011

As Alternative to Smartphone Tracking, We Need a Public Geolocation Map

As prominent news stories highlight the fact that Apple and Google are tracking smartphone users' movements whenever they use online maps or other geolocation services, government officials are demanding answers and investigations into why this data is being collected.

As a number of analysts have noted, for those who read the fine print of online and user consent forms in updating smartphone software, it's actually not a secret that the companies are monitoring the data.

But the fact that users are shocked and appalled reflects the fact that disclosure by fine print is not enough, or else you wouldn't need technology columnists to patiently explain to readers that they already elected Big Brother to office and they just didn't notice. And when the major smartphone companies make losing your anonymity the requirement for using any location-based service on your phone, that isn't much of a "choice."

As officials around the world respond to public outrage over smartphone companies tracking user movements, this New York Times story highlighted the particularly sharp response from Bavarian privacy officials in seeing the potential illegality of the process:

"If it's true that this information is being collected, and it is being done without the approval and knowledge of the users, then it is definitely a violation of German privacy law," said Thomas Kranig, [director of the Bavarian Agency for the Supervision of Data Protection].

It will be interesting to see if those officials buy that burying the consent in small print is enough to count as "knowledge" by consumers.

Building a Public Geolocation Map in Germany:
But this Bavarian part of the story is also interesting, since as I noted in this story, the Bavarian government is going beyond just enforcing privacy rules to actually pioneering the creation of an alternative to intrusive geolocation services like those sponsored by Google and Apple. The idea by the their government is to create a non-proprietary map that users can use as a substitute for ones that require you to trade your privacy for access.

The Bavarian government seems to be basing its approach on a basic truth: as long as the only way to use a smartphone to find out where you are, most users will automatically agree to exchange their privacy for access to a useful map.

This new public geolocation service in Germany is designed to help users track their location with wi-fi positioning like Google used with its Street View vehicles, but with some key differences:
  • No personal data will be collected. Instead, vehicles with GPS on board will collect only MAC addresses (i.e. no SSID or payload data).
  • Databases will be compiled and downloaded directly to individual cell phones, meaning no company like Google or Apple will get to track your location every time you check your location -- a big plus from a privacy perspective.
The consortium developing the technology, called awiloc WLAN localization technology, which is supported by the research company, Fraunhofer IIS (developer of the MP3 and MPEG AAC audio coding procedures), is starting with larger German cities. Databases for Nuremberg, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich will be available soon.

Along with being supported by government privacy authorities, the consortium includes IT2media, Germany's leading provider and operator of indexing solutions; init, the leading supplier of telematics and electronic payment systems for buses and rail; Map and Route, supplier of maps and route services; and art2guide, a supplier of audiovisual command systems. With multiple players involved, none will have a corporate advantage in control of user data, further protecting privacy.

Creating a Global Public Map:
If this model takes off in Germany and spreads to other countries, it could be a major challenge to Google or Apple controlling location-based searching if users adopt a common, non-proprietary location-based service technology. Location searching will evolve into more of a public utility shared by users and companies, instead of  the individual profit center these companies want it to be.

This also highlights that the U.S. regulatory approach needs to be more creative than just demanding companies adjust their opt-in or opt-out language in their fine print. However prominent the language, if users can't use location services on their phones without handing over their data to private companies like Apple and Google, that's no real choice at all.

We need a more pro-active approach that encourages a public option for geolocation information that does not track users' movements. No single company should control the map we depend on for use of our wireless services, and a public map should meet the same goals as the Bavarian project (described above) does -- access to the map without any personal data being collected.

The bottom line is that users should demand more than changes in corporate fine print-- we should demand that the government and industry create a public geolocation map not controlled by any single company. Anything less is a receipe for ongoing intrusion into our privacy.

Originally posted at