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iPhone location tracking: is Jobs right to widen the debate?

iPhone location tracking: is Jobs right to widen the debate?

When backed into a corner, widen the debate and draw in your competitors. It’s a well worn PR tactic, and one which has served to deflect attention from Apple’s failings in the past, most notably when it implicated RIM, Motorola and Samsung in last year’s iPhone 4 antenna debacle. And now Steve Jobs is at it again.

iphone 4

Following Apple’s official denial that the iPhone’s location tracking skills were sinister and that it was simply, “…maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers,” Jobs gave an interview to All Things D explaining the problem.

While admitting a software bug (which is currently being fixed) had meant users who switched off location services were still having their data collected, he was unrepentant. The Apple CEO said the company was not indulging in location tracking and that the problem was down to a failure of the tech industry to properly educate consumers. Here’s his words in full:

“We haven’t been tracking anyone. The files they found on these phones, as we explained, it turned out were basically files we have built through anonymous, crowd-sourced information that we collect from the tens of millions of iPhones out there.

“As new technology comes into the society there is a period of adjustment and education. We haven’t, as an industry, done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here. As such, people jumped to a lot of wrong conclusions in the last week.”

This falls some way short of Jobs’ email response to an angry user earlier in the week when he claimed, “They [Google] do it too.” But the implication is clear. This isn’t our problem, he’s saying. It’s everyone’s.

steve jobs iphone

This is an interesting point seeing as such tracking smarts have been revealed as part of an Apple patent, filed in 2009. The deflection tactics don’t end there. Apple’s FAQ about location tracking made broad hints about a mapping service that uses the iPhone’s position. This is more than enough to send Apple watchers into overdrive and start pondering whether Cupertino could be about to launch a Google Maps rival.

It’s a smart tactic: Apple knows its followers will obsess over new products and software and that the story about location tracking will conveniently take a backseat.

Is it fair to say the industry, not Apple, is to blame for location tracking? Google does take details but only in a limited fashion. Of course, privacy issues are not limited to Apple and the iPhone, but the company’s PR machine is relentless and smart in the ways it opens up debate to deflect attention from the central problem.

Jobs is a master of this tactic and it’s partly why Apple has become such a colossal success. However, it’s hard to believe the denials this time round. This is a real issue that needs addressing and Apple needs to take the lead with it.

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