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Monday, July 21, 2008

The iPhone Needs Privacy Controls

iphone_security.jpgThe iPhone seems to have created a huge security and privacy problem recently that I think many more people should be watching. By launching a developer platform and SDK, Apple has essentially created one of the largest social network platforms in existence, bringing even more powerful and personal data than ever before to the developer. Apple is essentially enabling the developers themselves to create the iPhone social network with almost no power whatsoever given to the iPhone user on how to enable or disable that data.

I became amazingly aware of what a huge issue this is when I, like many other iPhone early adopters, downloaded the Loopt application from the iTunes App Store and signed up for their service over my iPhone. Before I knew it, I had realized I just SMS'd about half of the contacts on my iPhone, including important business contacts and more that I would just rather not have an Application have access to. I couldn't necessarily SMS them an apology, as that would just add to the issue I had just created. In fact, my Mom, who doesn't have an SMS plan on her cell phone called me later that day to ask that I not send her SMS text messages to her cell phone, when in reality, I had no idea it was sent to her! Loopt had assumed that it would be okay to allow their users to send their friends SMS messages inviting them to Loopt (in a very ambiguous manner), when after mass complaint, Loopt quickly retracted from their efforts.

I argue this wasn't Loopt's fault though. Of course, Loopt does have some responsibility to satisfy their users, but despite having to apply to be in Apple's directory, there is nothing stopping them from being malicious with the way they are handling the data on your iPhone. I know Loopt had no ill intentions, but this could have been any App out there with ill, or even not-so-ill intentions. Apple has no privacy controls on the iPhone giving the user control over what Applications can and can't access, and as we've seen already, this is coming back to haunt them.

The iPhone has some very powerful features, accessible via the API, that make it an extremely valuable and unprecedented Social Networking tool. I'll list those here:

Location, Location, Location - the Profile

First of all, the iPhone has access to your location and where you've been, which, I argue, is much more valuable information than any other Social Network profile in existence can provide about an individual user. The iPhone makes the people in the "Social Network" real.

The Contact List - your Friends

The iPhone has one of the most realistic contact/friend lists available in existence. The iPhone contact list contains information about people you actually talk to and interact with in real life. It also imports your other contact lists from other locations such as Gmail. No other Social Network in history has that type of completely real information about those you truly interact with on a daily basis.

Multimedia - the big picture

The iPhone has the most up-to-date photos, audio, and other multimedia in existence. Think about it -- every social network you belong to currently probably has photos that originated from your iPhone or other camera. They are on your iPhone before they are on the Social Network. The iPhone also has real-time listening habits of users, along with your mail, your internet history, your stocks, the weather in your location -- I could keep going on and on!

As you can see, the iPhone provides an extremely rich set of data integration points which any Application can take right now, and use as they please, and the user has absolutely no control over it (minus one prompt if the application is trying to get your location data). This is actually quite scary if you think about it!

Apple really needs to take a lesson from Facebook on this. One of my favorite features of Facebook is the fact that I can click on a single link and control all the information I save on Facebook right then and there. As a user, I can feel comfortable that no application I install will share my information in any way I don't want Facebook to share it. Facebook takes pride in this, and it has even caused them problems as they have tried to fight this with the likes of Google's FriendConnect to protect this data and keep it in the hands of their users if the users do not want it shared.

Never in history has there been such a phenomena as the iPhone SDK being opened. It's brand new, and it's unprecedented, so issues and flaws are to be expected. I only hope that Apple can, in the end, respect their users' privacy and place a little more control over what data the Apps you install are allowed to access. Doesn't this concern you?

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