The unedifying arrogance of Apple

Barry Collins
28 Apr 2011

There are many things to admire about Apple (and its products), but its attitude isn’t one of them.

When customers discovered reception issues with the iPhone 4, did the company hold its hands up and immediately apologise? No, we were “holding the phone the wrong way” and offered a conciliatory piece of rubber.

When researchers discovered that the iPhone had been tracking your location and leaving that highly sensitive data unencrypted on your PC, did Apple show even an iota of regret? No, it waited several days before issuing a confrontational Q&A that claimed we weren’t smart enough to understand the “complex technical issues” involved.

Apple is displaying arrogance bordering on contempt for its customers, and here’s why.

We’re not tracking you

“The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.”

That is, at best, a distortion of the truth. Yes, the iPhone may only be plotting the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and 3G cell towers, but that’s often more than enough to build up an accurate picture of your whereabouts.

Yes, cell towers can be “located more than one hundred miles away”, but only if you live in the Mojave Desert. If you work in, say, the PC Pro office here in central London, there are 18 base stations within a 500m radius, as you can see from the map generated by Ofcom’s Sitefinder (below).

In fact, when we first entered our postcode, we were asked to zoom in because there were too many cell stations to display on the map.  In short, there are more than enough cell stations in major cities to pinpoint your location to the exact street.

“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

Well, that depends on your definition of tracking. As our technical editor Darien Graham-Smith pointed out in a Twitter discussion on this topic, “unless your phone goes for long bike rides on its own, the data that tracks your phone also tracks you”.

And this 2009 Apple patent application certainly suggests that creating a searchable "location history database" on smartphones was very much Apple's intention.

Too complex for you

The most breathtaking part of Apple’s Q&A comes in question two, where the company answers the question: why is everyone so concerned about this?

Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”

This, as PC Pro’s Real World Computing expert Paul Ockenden pointed out, smacks of the “Andrew Lansley defence”: there’s nothing wrong with the policy, you just don’t get it.

And what’s all this about “very complex technical issues” that are “hard to communicate in a soundbite”? That’s a bit rich from the company that sprinkles soundbites like confetti in keynote speeches, describing its iPad as “magical” without revealing even the most basic of specs – like how much memory the tablet has.

Give us as much technical detail as you like, Apple: we can handle it. If we get stuck, we can even pick up the phone and ask your press officers, in the unlikely event they’ll ever answer a question.

Apple does itself no favours with this relentless inability to admit when it’s wrong. Leaving an unencrypted batch of location data on people’s phones and PCs is bad, bordering on reckless. A simple sorry would have done.

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