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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.

Opinions

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 Computerworld.com contributing editor and the author of more than 35 books, including How the Internet Works (Que, 2006).


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