IT caught in crossfire when it comes to smartphone privacy

The news that iPhones, iPads and Android devices secretly track the locations of their owners poses a potentially serious dilemma for IT staffs. If someone's manager asks IT to retrieve that data and hand it over, what should IT do? We certainly have to acknowledge that a device that's used for business purposes but automatically tracks personal information blurs the line between personal and corporate information.

First, a bit of background. It was recently revealed that iPhones and iPads track their owners' locations and store that information in unencrypted files on the devices and on the owners' computers. Android devices do the same, but the files aren't also stored on computers.

In the case of iPhones and iPads, approximately 100 data points -- in other words, precise information about places the user has visited -- are logged every day. A single file can have tens of thousands of these data points.


Because the files containing these data points can be found on employees' computers, the IT staff has easy access to them. And even in the case of Android devices, where the data is stored only on the phones themselves, IT staffers can get access to them as well, by simply taking possession of the devices.

Normally, anything done on a company's hardware is considered rightfully accessible to the business. Email and information about the websites a user visits aren't considered private -- the company has the right to examine it.

That standard would seem to apply as well when the hardware is a smartphone or a tablet. Email, Internet and app use would fall under the dominion of the business, just as they would with a PC, and could rightfully be examined. But can that guideline be extended to location data? Employees are often required to carry company-issued smartphones at all times, including after work and on weekends. And now we know that as they do so, their movements are being tracked, with the data stored in a file.

Legally Hazy

So I'll ask the question again: Does the user's employer have the right to examine that data if it owns the devices it's stored on? And if it does, should it do so? Is it really an employer's business if an employee goes to his daughter's softball practice on a Saturday afternoon? How about if an employee goes to a strip club on a Saturday night? Even though I don't frequent strip clubs, I want to say no, that information should remain private. But if the information is stored on a device that belongs to the employer, it's a hazy legal issue.

IT staffs, which have the technical capability to gather the location data, will inevitably be caught in the crossfire when this question arises. But until companies develop clear, legally valid guidelines about what information can be gathered and what can't, IT shouldn't do it.

And this is only one of several complicated issues on the horizon. For example, when someone uses a personal smartphone to conduct company business, is everything on the phone fair game for the enterprise?

The upshot: If you're in IT, get your company to develop clear guidelines on smartphone data now. If you don't, it'll come back to bite you in the future.

Preston Gralla is a contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).

Join the CSO newsletter!

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags consumer electronicsGoogleMicrosoftsecurityNokiaAndroidPhonestwitterprivacyBlackberry

More about AppleTopic

Show Comments

Featured Whitepapers

Editor's Recommendations

Solution Centres

Stories by Preston Gralla

Latest Videos

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: The Human Factor - Your people are your biggest security weakness

    ​Speakers: David Lacey, Researcher and former CISO Royal Mail David Turner - Global Risk Management Expert Mark Guntrip - Group Manager, Email Protection, Proofpoint

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Current ransomware defences are failing – but machine learning can drive a more proactive solution

    Speakers • Ty Miller, Director, Threat Intelligence • Mark Gregory, Leader, Network Engineering Research Group, RMIT • Jeff Lanza, Retired FBI Agent (USA) • Andy Solterbeck, VP Asia Pacific, Cylance • David Braue, CSO MC/Moderator What to expect: ​Hear from industry experts on the local and global ransomware threat landscape. Explore a new approach to dealing with ransomware using machine-learning techniques and by thinking about the problem in a fundamentally different way. Apply techniques for gathering insight into ransomware behaviour and find out what elements must go into a truly effective ransomware defence. Get a first-hand look at how ransomware actually works in practice, and how machine-learning techniques can pick up on its activities long before your employees do.

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: Get real about metadata to avoid a false sense of security

    Speakers: • Anthony Caruana – CSO MC and moderator • Ian Farquhar, Worldwide Virtual Security Team Lead, Gigamon • John Lindsay, Former CTO, iiNet • Skeeve Stevens, Futurist, Future Sumo • David Vaile - Vice chair of APF, Co-Convenor of the Cyberspace Law And Policy Community, UNSW Law Faculty This webinar covers: - A 101 on metadata - what it is and how to use it - Insight into a typical attack, what happens and what we would find when looking into the metadata - How to collect metadata, use this to detect attacks and get greater insight into how you can use this to protect your organisation - Learn how much raw data and metadata to retain and how long for - Get a reality check on how you're using your metadata and if this is enough to secure your organisation

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them

    CSO Webinar: How banking trojans work and how you can stop them Featuring: • John Baird, Director of Global Technology Production, Deutsche Bank • Samantha Macleod, GM Cyber Security, ME Bank • Sherrod DeGrippo, Director of Emerging Threats, Proofpoint (USA)

    Play Video

  • 150x50

    IDG Live Webinar:The right collaboration strategy will help your business take flight

    Speakers - Mike Harris, Engineering Services Manager, Jetstar - Christopher Johnson, IT Director APAC, 20th Century Fox - Brent Maxwell, Director of Information Systems, THE ICONIC - IDG MC/Moderator Anthony Caruana

    Play Video

More videos

Blog Posts

Market Place