by Larry Magid
Two recent news stories about cell phone location services recently caught my eye. One was a positive development and the other quite negative, until it was at least partially fixed.
The positive story is that Apple’s iOS 12 operating system for iPhone will enable users to “automatically and securely” share their location data with 911 call centers and first responders. The negative story revealed that cell phone carriers were selling real-time customer location information to data brokers who sold that information to law enforcement and others, without necessarily going through those annoying and time consuming formalities such as court orders. In response to the controversy, the major carriers are stopping the practice.
Locations disclosed without consent or court order
In a letter to AT&T president Randall Stephenson, Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) said that he “recently learned that Securus Technologies, a major provider of correction facility telephone services, purchases real-time location information from major wireless carriers and provides that information, via a self-service portal, to the government with nothing more than a pinky promise.” Wyden also went after Verizon, T-Mobile and Sprint. So far, Verizon, AT&T and Sprint have announced that they will no longer provide this information to these third parties.
According to Wyden, law enforcement agencies could obtain this data simply by uploading an “official document” to a Securus web portal but said that senior officials from Securus “have confirmed to my office that it never checks the legitimacy of those uploaded documents.”
In addition to these illegitimate sales to law enforcement, there is also the not-so-theoretical risk of hacking. Motherboard reported that a hacker broke into Securus servers and stole “2,800 usernames, email addresses, phone numbers, and hashed passwords and security questions of Securus users, stretching from 2011 up to this year.” And, as Krebs on Security reported last month, LocationSmart, another data aggregator with access to these phone location records, “has been leaking this information to anyone via a buggy component of its Web site — without the need for any password or other form of authentication or authorization.”
Location data can save lives
The positive story about smartphone location data is also important and worth celebrating. Last week, Apple announced that it’s working with emergency technology company RapidSOS to “quickly and securely” share iPhone callers’ location data with 911 centers. Cell phone carriers have long been able to provide some location data to 911 centers even before there were smartphones. But iPhones and Android devices have far more location data than those old flip phones, including what can be gleaned from GPS and WiFi access points. There are also efforts underway to pinpoint specific locations within buildings.
In a press release, Apple said that “Approximately 80 percent of 911 calls today come from mobile devices, but outdated, landline-era infrastructure often makes it difficult for 911 centers to quickly and accurately obtain a mobile caller’s location.” RapidSOS currently offers its RapidSOS Haven Emergency app for both Android and iPhones.
Even if you don’t have a 911-level emergency, there are other reasons to use your mobile device to share location data. One is to let others know when you are likely to arrive at a location, such as a meeting or dinner appointment.
Another is piece of mind for parents, spouses/partners and other close family and friends. I’m a bit of a worry-wart and there are times when I’ve used technology to locate my wife and other family members with their permission and knowledge, including when they’re traveling abroad. It’s not about stalking but reassurance that they’re OK.
I’ve heard from parents who insist that their children share their location via their smartphone in exchange for giving them more freedom to be out on their own.
Google Maps has a “Share location until you arrive” feature that allows people to follow your progress during a specific trip. The free Glympse app for smartphones allows you to share your location for a specified period of time — up to four hours, a limit that prevents the app from being abused by stalkers.
Apple’s Find My Friends app lets you permanently share your location with friends, though you can terminate or suspend location sharing at any time.
There are also ways to track your car. My wife and I each have an Automatic Pro ($129.95 with no monthly fee) in our car which can track the car’s location, automatically call for help after a crash and provide diagnostic information. It can be removed or disabled, but when it’s working, it can share your location with anyone allowed to access your account.
Another option is using Apple’s Find My iPhone feature or Google’s Find My Device. In general, I don’t recommend sharing your password, even with close friends, but it could be appropriate as a way for parents to track their children (ideally with the kids’ knowledge) or even between close partners with the understanding that you should change your password if you have any reason to believe someone may be misusing the information. There are also “find my friends” style apps for Android that you can use to share your location with others and unshare at any time.
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By Larry Magid
As the founder of SafeKids.com and co-founder of ConnectSafely.org, I’ve written volumes about parental controls that help parents limit what their kids can do online or with mobile devices. Apple already offers optional parental controls for iPhones and iPads, but with the upcoming release of its new mobile operating system, iOS 12, the company is enhancing those controls and — more interesting — extending them to adult users.
Don’t worry grown-ups, you still have control over what you can do with your devices, but with a new feature called Screen Time along with updates to notifications and Do Not Disturb, the company is doing a lot more to encourage breaks and help users understand how much they are using their devices and apps.
Google also offers parental controls on its Android phones and, in May, introduced its own set of “wind down” features for adults.
What sets Apple apart is that the tools for parents and children are similar to the ones for adults. The main difference is that the parental version allows parents to monitor and limit their kids’ usage.
I applaud Google and Apple for helping us put a bit more thought into how much we use our devices, but I’m especially pleased by Apple’s approach of creating similar tools for both kids and adults. I say that mostly because it makes taking breaks and getting usage reports a family affair.
I hope these tools encourage families to review reports together — and by that, I mean let the kids see and discuss the parents’ report.
It’s known that parents are concerned about their kids’ use of tech, but what may come as a surprise is that a lot of kids are concerned about their parents’ use.
In February at the Safer Internet Day event in Austin, Texas, a group of elementary school students told ConnectSafely’s education director Kerry Gallagher that they’re concerned about how much time their parents spend with devices. One child said that when her parents do a search or check an email, they wind up spending far too much time looking at the screen instead of interacting with family. I wonder if some of these kids would be interested in installing controls on their parents devices, putting kids in charge of setting parental limits.
To me, the parental controls are less about setting limits and more about setting reminders and developing good habits that can last a lifetime. For more of my advice on this topic, see “What parents should think about when using or considering parental controls,” at connectsafely.org/parental-controls.
Screen Time for adults and kids
Apple’s Screen Time feature gives you a detailed report of what you or your kids are doing with your devices and how long you’re using each app. You can track your usage by day, week or month and can sync these features across devices in case you try to sneak a peek at your Instagram account on your iPad after reaching the limit on your phone.
There is an option that lets you set limits, which you can override, on how much time you spend using specific apps. The Downtime feature allows parents to control when their kids can use their devices. They also can exempt certain apps from limitations, such as the ability to make phone calls or apps that help with homework.
Updates to Apple’s notification management tools provide new ways to limit those pesky beeps or even onscreen notices that interrupt us during the day and, sometimes, even when we sleep.
One of the things that annoys me about notifications in both iOS and Android is how hard it is to shut them down. With iOS 12 you’ll be able to manage notifications from the lock screen by sending a specific app’s notifications to the Notification Center or turning it off completely. I have an Android phone and have spent a considerable amount of time in the Apps and Notifications setting area, painstakingly reviewing and adjusting the setting for each of my many apps. Apple said that Siri, on iOS 12, will make “intelligent suggestions about your alerts based on how you interact with them.”
Apple is improving its Do Not Disturb function to allow you to turn it on while you’re in a meeting or at a location and have it automatically turn off when the event ends or when you leave that location.
A new Do Not Disturb at bedtime setting will basically turn the phone into a clock while you’re in bed with a screen that’s free of notification and app icons that might otherwise tempt you to interact with the phone rather than with your pillow.
Some find it ironic that some tech companies are starting to encourage us to use their products less, but I think it’s good business and good politics at a time when our country is going through a bit of a tech backlash in the wake of all sorts of revelations about how tech — as great as it is — can have some unintended consequences.
Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely.org, a nonprofit internet safety organization that receives financial support from Facebook, Snapchat and other tech companies.
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