Last Tuesday Sen. Al Franken (D-MN) led the questioning of Apple executives (among several companies, including Google) about the legitimacy and intent of their products’ location data collection. The hearing was prompted by myriad recent reports of Apple’s iPhones and iPads tracking and storing users’ movements. An Apple executive explained that the software only keeps track of which Wi-Fi Hotspots and cell towers the phone connects to and nothing more.
While many consider the potential pros and cons of this software, two German data analysts have taken it upon themselves to explore the collected information stored on iPhones. The two have asked for volunteers to share each of their phone’s collected data and are mapping out the results in a new project called Crowdflow.net
The project’s website explains that their mission is to “create an open database of Wi-Fi and cell networks and thus visualize how these networks are distributed all over the world.” Michael Kreil, one of the projects’ founders, added that it was simple scientific curiosity that led to the inception of Crowdflow.net. Quite the humble scientist, Kreil confessed he doesn’t know what the data will eventually prove, whether it’s cell coverage quality or whether it’s simply an interesting experiment to see where and when the masses are on the move (hence the site’s title moniker, Crowdflow).
At this juncture, the results are rather preliminary – only 700 iPhone data logs have been gathered thus far. Still, even in its nascent stage, Crowdflow.net is already proving to be an interesting enterprise to some and a cause for paranoia in others. But could location tracking have a positive impact? Advocates say it is an exciting data visualization experiment whose results could make beneficial changes in the business world while its opponents see it as a sign we may be spiraling toward an Orwellian dystopia fraught with intrusions into our private lives. One day, location tracking could prove to be a marketing mainstay; geographically focused advertising based on the user’s precise location in the country – or indeed the world – could streamline the entire industry. For now though, the potential for businesses to utilize this software remains unrealized, floundering in an ethical gray area.