HUA HIN, Thailand - Apple Inc has been attracting the wrong kind of attention
this week following scrutiny from consumers and privacy advocates over personal
data collection by iPhone software. Researchers publicized the existence of
unencrypted files on the iPhone and iPad that collect and store location
The cached data was also time-stamped, backed up on iTunes, associated with
Apple's Location Services, and could not be deactivated by users when they
opted out of the service. The discovery sparked outrage from consumers claiming
that Apple were tracking their whereabouts.
In a rather contradictory statement this week, Apple denied that it was
tracking customers' locations but acknowledged that it does
gather information based on locality to enhance the performance of the iPhone
and its applications.
Chief executive Steve Jobs spoke out personally, stating that Apple does not
track its customers and never will - although he also said the company will fix
the way that it stores location data in a software update for the devices. The
existing software "bugs" have been causing too much data to be stored,
according to the world's most valuable technology company. Jobs did not state
that Apple would stop collecting location-based information from users, only
that the database used to store it would be re-sized.
Privacy advocates highlighted that Apple has admitted to the collection and
storage of location-based data to better serve location-based applications,
many of which serve location-based advertising, with a large portion of the
revenue going directly to Apple. Even when consumers opted-out of such
services, the data was still retained, and iTunes was still reporting back to
the mothership without knowledge or consent of the user.
Google has also come under scrutiny over personal data collection but, unlike
Apple, the company came clean immediately and made users aware when it was
revealed that location-based data was being stored by Android devices.
US lawmakers have extended their probe into Apple and other mobile software
developers, requesting less secrecy and more divulgence over how the software
gathers data on its users.
Better news for Apple fans came with Microsoft's quarterly figures for sales
and profits, which trailed those of the iPad and Macintosh computer maker for
the first time in 20 years. Net income jumped 30% to US$5.2 billion and sales
gained 13% to $16.4 billion. Both were smaller than Apple's earnings figures
released earlier, with the company making $6 billion profit on revenue of $24.7
Entertainment giant Sony Corp revealed that personal information had been
stolen from tens of millions of users of its online gaming, movie and music
services. Members of the PlayStation Network and Qriocity, Sony's on-demand
digital music service, may have lost personal data such as names, addresses,
phone numbers, birth dates, email addresses and passwords to hackers who
infiltrated the network last week.
There are an estimated 77 million users on Sony's network and the company has
issued warnings to all of them regarding the security breach and possible loss
of data. The system was shut down on April 20 while security experts analyzed
the network and servers. The Tokyo-based company is conducting a complete
investigation into the intrusion and rebuilding the system to offer better
The digital damage has been done though and the lawsuits are already mounting
up, according to court documents filed on behalf of the plaintiffs Sony
allegedly "failed to encrypt data and establish adequate firewalls to handle a
server intrusion contingency, failed to provide prompt and adequate warnings of
security breaches, and unreasonably delayed in bringing the PSN service back on
Sony has yet to respond to the legal action. It stated that all credit card
information on its servers was encrypted and it has not found any evidence to
suggest that the data was taken. Sony shares slid over 8% this week as the
severity of the security exploitation hit home. Analysts estimate that the
problem could cost the company over US$1.5 billion, not to mention the loss of
customers to rival platforms and networks.
Financial woes have forced the closure of the largest operational facility at
the SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) Institute. The Allen
Telescope Array (ATA), which has been scanning the skies for five decades, has
been put into hibernation because the project is unable to raise the $5 million
required to operate for the next two years.
The cluster of radio dishes, featured in the 1997 Jodie Foster movie Contact,
have been searching the heavens for hunting for radio signals from space that
may indicate that we are not alone in the universe. Despite being funded by
SETI, the $50 million array, now managed and operated by the radio astronomy
lab of the University of California, Berkeley, has run out of cash. Budget cuts
at the university and at other donors such as the US National Science
Foundation and the state government of California have resulted in reduced
funding for the project.
Private donors such as Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, after which the ATA was
named, are the only hope of reviving the project. A glimmer lies with the US
military, who may be convinced to use the array to track space debris that
Astrophysicists are deeply disappointed, with some stating that our society
squanders vast sums on trivia and entertainment, yet cannot find some small
change to address the burning issue of whether we are alone in the universe.
Calling off the search for extraterrestrial intelligence comes just two months
after the compilation of 1,235 possible new planets observed by the Kepler
space observatory, many of which, according to scientists, could contain the
elements required for life.
Martin J Young is an Asia Times Online correspondent based in Thailand.