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Apple Caught Up in Privacy Paranoia

When it comes to privacy, I'm the first to stand up and shout that privacy ought to be protected at the highest costs. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg might disagree. The good folks over at Google, now facing a multi-state Attorneys General investigation over privacy concerns might disagree too.

At Apple , despite coverage to the contrary, not so much.

The LA Times grabbed eyeballs yesterday with purported big news about a change in Apple's privacy policy that has the company tracking and collecting "precise," and "real-time geographic location" of its users' iPhones, iPads, and computers. The tricky part of the Times' coverage comes down to one simple word: "Now." Apple is "now collecting" this data. Nevermind that Apple has been doing precisely this for over a year, ever since iPhone3's release. In this privacy paranoia climate, stuff like this gets lots of attention.

What should get the real attention here is that Apple, for a change, is actually the good guy. Apple's taken it on the chin recently for its dealings with Adobe, the way it handled the Gizmodo-stolen-iPhone-prototype fiasco, the way it has been stretching its bullying legs in the marketplace. And the PR black eyes have all been at various points justified. But when it comes to this nascent privacy imbroglio, the up-in-arms folks need to take their seats, and here's why:

First, Apple's privacy policy hasn't changed when it comes to tracking and collection. The policy has been in place for over a year and isn't changing "now." Second, while users have to accept Apple's privacy policy in order to operate within Apple's apps world, the apps themselves explicitly ask the user whether it's ok to track and collect this data BEFORE the user accesses the app. Third, Apple has made it exceedingly easy for users to opt out of so-called location services with a few simple mouse-clicks that disables all of this to begin with (though with so many apps, ranging from Google Maps, FourSquare to restaurant reservations to photographic geo-tagging relying on GPS technology, I'm not sure how many will actually do that). Fourth, bring me a smart phone that doesn't track and collect location data, and I imagine I'll be waiting a while for you to show up. Fact is, Research in Motion, Droid phones running Google's Android Mobile Operating System, and just about everyone else already tracks and collects.

Read Apple's privacy policy and it's rather straightforward. Better still, the company is very clear in offering its users examples of how this data may be used, which is rather useful. Even if after reading all that, you're still not convinced, or still concerned, Apple offers an easy way to opt out of all of it by simply updating your user preferences (and even offers directions on how to do that.)

Head on over to Google, just as an example and you have to navigate your way through an unbelievably complicated maze that Google calls its Privacy Center. Google has five privacy principles, and they stretch across 44 different Google products and services. I defy you to make sense of those policies in even a tenth the time it will take you to work your way through Apple's privacy policy.

It's easy to jump to conclusions that Apple, or any other company, is mortgaging your privacy for a quick buck, or the promise of one, but if you dig a little deeper, at least in this case it appears that Apple is moving in the other direction, and taking some initiative to protect the privacy of its users. At least to an extent. The company's new, official page that lets users opt out of personal data collection, is a key step in the right direction. Nobody's perfect, and Apple still has yet to detail how long it plans to keep the data it collects. But against the competition, Apple seems to be raising the bar, not trying to sneak under it.

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