Pre phones home with your location, which explains the black helicopters all around you

Chris Ziegler
C. Ziegler|08.12.09

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Chris Ziegler
August 12th, 2009
In this article: location, palm, palm pre, PalmPre, pre, privacy, webos
Pre phones home with your location, which explains the black helicopters all around you
Wondering why you keep getting followed by shadowy figures in trenchcoats and fake moustaches? Worried that those snipers on the rooftops always seem to know exactly where you are? We think we know what's going on: it's the Pre in your pocket. Turns out that Palm has code tucked away in webOS that's uploading your location periodically -- once a day or so -- along with a list of applications you've used and how long they've been open. Here's our take on the situation:
  • One of the very first screens you see when you power on the Pre for the first time is a disclaimer asking you to allow Google to collect, aggregate, and anonymize your location data in order to improve the performance of location-based services. Furthermore -- and this is important -- "collection will occur regardless of whether any applications are active." We don't know whether Palm acts as a conduit for that data to get to Google, but we'd be surprised if Palm had built services to pipe location data straight to Google within webOS itself; in all likelihood, Palm's getting the data first, which is why it's being uploaded there. Bear in mind that you're seeing this warning outside the context of any Google app on the Pre -- it's right in the operating system. Palm has its own terms and conditions that you agree to above and beyond Google's, too, and they flat-out say they "may collect, store, access, disclose, transmit, process, and otherwise use your location data." There you have it.
  • App usage is a pretty benign stat -- equate it to TiVo anonymizing and selling your viewing habits, except even less interesting, because we have no evidence to suggest Palm's trying to sell this. We can totally understand why Palm would want insight into app popularity, and when you think about it, this could actually lead to some pretty clever ranking systems in the App Catalog; the iPhone has starkly demonstrated that download volume doesn't equate to replay value, and Palm might be able to do something about that. Oh, and seriously, you need to cut it out with the Jon & Kate Plus 8.
  • When an app crashes, Palm gets some more in-depth information about the crash, most notably a list of installed apps. You know what else collects and sends a crapload of information when an app crashes? Mac OS. Windows, too. If they really wanted to go into CYA mode, they could ask before sending the way those desktop OSes do, but we're not sweating bullets here -- we just want stability, and this kind of data helps them get there.
Bottom line: we're all carrying phones that can identify who we are and where we are -- and they have the wireless means to ferry that data wherever their makers wish. And let's not forget that your Palm Profile lives out there in the cloud anyhow, right?

[Via PreCentral]

Update: Palm has issued a statement on the situation, basically confirming what we suspected -- it's collecting information to offer "a great user experience," which we take to mean that it's trying to squash bugs and keep location-centric apps functional, among other things. They've also mentioned that it's possible to turn data collecting services off without going into details -- ostensibly they're referring to the checkbox at setup (see above) that lets you stop sending aggregated location results to Google.
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