Steve Jobs (AAPL) may have tried to bat away concerns over the iPhone's location data collection, but if you ever need a reminder why holding such information is something for public concern, then look no further than Dutch navigation company TomTom.
It's trying to weather the storm that has engulfed it since it emerged that the company was selling data about driving activity to police and local authorities. It's anonymized data, but unsurprisingly, plenty of users are angry their movements have been used in this way, without their knowledge—something that happened, apparently, because personal navigation device makers are under pressure to keep up revenues as users started switching to GPS-enabled phones.
The news, first revealed by Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, has forced an apology from TomTom Chief Executive Officer Harold Goddijn. It has made him promise to stop this kind of thing from happening in the future. And it has led the company to insist the same process does not happen in other countries.
But whatever the eventual outcome of the revelation, there's something about the apology that's patronizing. TomTom doesn't really say selling its customers' data is wrong, but that it was caught is uncomfortable. The heart of it is in this part of the statement (my emphasis):
"When you connect your TomTom to a computer we aggregate this information and use it for a variety of applications, most importantly to create high quality traffic information and to route you around traffic jams. We also make this information available to local governments and authorities. It helps them to better understand where congestion takes place, where to build new roads and how to make roads safer. …
"We are now aware that the police have used traffic information that you have helped to create to place speed cameras at dangerous locations where the average speed is higher than the legally allowed speed limit. We are aware a lot of our customers do not like the idea and we will look at if we should allow this type of usage."
Look at that line: "We are aware a lot of our customers do not like the idea." That's the same sort of refrain I sensed from Steve Jobs. Yes, we collect information, but if you're annoyed, it's because you don't understand. If the last week or two of arguments about location privacy have shown us anything, it's a certain sense of disdain from corporations toward their customers.
Nobody's arguing that we wouldn't all like to be safer on the roads. But it seems to me that the real problem with TomTom is the inherent conflict of interest in what it's doing: TomTom collected the data (which is anonymized), then sold it to law enforcement, who use it to determine the best places to put speed cameras. But then TomTom charges its users €50 ($74.19) a year to get warnings about where speed cameras are. They're effectively building up a circle in which they play two sides against each other for profit.
That's why people are annoyed. They feel there's an injustice, or a potential for injustice.
Ryan Kim wrote about why it's important to come clean about location data. I suspect it's time for companies to realize user concerns about location data aren't simply because people don't get it. It's because they have a fundamental right to know how people are profiting from what they do.
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