Fracas. That's what this is, it's a fracas. A couple of programmers discovered a little file nestled within each of their computers. It seems their iPhones had been tracking location, and saving the data in an unencrypted file on their desktop machines. So they checked, and sure enough, this was happening to all iPhone users. They built a simple application that maps the data, allowing people to see for themselves what info lurked on their own hard drives. Then the Computerwebs got a hold of it, and collectively said, "Wait, what?" The story ran everywhere, blogs ranneth over with reactions, word got out that Android devices also track location, word also got out that law enforcement knew about the data and have used it for investigations, blogs ranneth over with analysis of each others' reactions, Senator Franken wrote an open letter to Steve Jobs. The whole thing became the flashpoint for a larger debate on technology vs. privacy, John Q. Consumer vs. Corporation, Inc.
Basically, a fracas.
My phone happens to be one of Apple's progeny, so when these details began trickling out last Wednesday, my ears perked up. Dystopian future is a shifty thing. It doesn't happen all at once, always in itty-bitty steps that no one particularly minds all that much. I sighed and looked at the expensive gizmo on my desk the way one might look at a French bulldog who knows he's not supposed to chew your sneakers, but who really likes to chew your sneakers, and I mean don't you have other sneakers anyway?
As I started clicking links, I was prepared to be bummed-slash-pissed about what I found. Which I was, for a second, right up until I saw the maps that people were making with the location data from their phones. Then my reaction was somewhat more along the lines of:
Way to miss the point, numbnuts.
The instant I got home I grabbed the application. (Well, first I grabbed the source code by mistake, which confused the shit out of me, then I grabbed the application.) Bear in mind that I did this instead of playing Portal 2, which was just sitting there waiting to be downloaded, with its knee-high boots and plunging neckline. Nope, I spent ten minutes looking at maps.
Normally I'm not someone who turns a warning label into an excuse to play, I swear.
• Caution: Bridge ices before road — Which is precisely why I'm hitting the gas. • Caution: Live alligators — Oh come on, like I'm ever going to get another chance to see an alligator. • Caution: Hazardous radioactive waste material — Look, a barrel! Wasn't I just saying I needed a barrel?
But here's the thing. I like data. I'm fascinated by the idea that our lives generate a never-ending set of statistics, transcribed upon the universe. Number of times blinked, cumulative length of hair grown, total minutes spent inebriated, amount of oatmeal consumed (broken out by flavor), distance traveled by foot, distance traveled by car, distance traveled by catamaran — these figures exist somewhere in the ether, and they paint a more accurate picture precisely because we didn't know they were being recorded. I'm aware that they're not, by the way, in case you were concerned that I'd gone off the end of the pier.
Look, you're talking to a guy who always lets the song play all the way to the end, because that's when iTunes ticks the "Plays" and "Last Played" counters. It is safe to assume that an app which lets me visualize my physical location over the last few years is more or less up my alley.
The first thing I noticed is that the data appears to start around October 2009. My presence in Rockport, MA for a wedding that month was recorded, but my cross-country drive to Denver a few weeks earlier wasn't. The road trip was actually one of the main things I was hoping to see, and its absence makes my national map a lot less colorful. From the picture, you can see the yawning chasm of overlapping data in New York. My home state of New Hampshire would have more robust representation, but the academy campus where my sister lives gets very little cell reception. Same goes for the Catskills town where I spent a few weekends filming a horror movie. Beyond the Northeast, there's some coverage in Texas — mostly around Austin, with side trips to Houston and San Antonio.
Word is that Apple will somehow remedy the location data issue, but I'll keep the app handy just to be sure. Checking the map in a year or two should be interesting. And I suppose it will be nice to know whether my phone is still maintaining a constant record of my whereabouts.
(Edit 4/27: Apple has responded to the fracas.)