Is IT Tracking Your Location via Smartphone?

Lost in all the iPhone location tracking buzz is one big reality: If you carry a company-issued smartphone, chances are IT knows where you go -- though not for the reasons you might think.

Tue, April 26, 2011

CIO — Let's say you scored a boondoggle to Los Angeles for a business conference, and instead sneaked off to nearby Disneyland with the family for a vacation on the corporate dime. Or maybe you simply told your boss you were meeting a client, but hit the golf links with your buddies.

If you carry a work-related iPhone, BlackBerry, Android or Windows Phone 7 smartphone, IT can track your movements. Never mind all the hand-wringing over the recent discussion that an iPhone secretly records its location in an obscure file stored locally and on the iTunes-synced PC - all unbeknownst to the user. Virtually every smartphone can deliver this information to IT, if IT is inclined to track it.

"If companies wanted to, they could do it," says Erik Woodland, technical support supervisor and network administrator at Fenner Drives, a manufacturer of power transmission and related products. "The technology has been around a long time."

Woodland is quick to point out that his BlackBerry-turned-iPhone company doesn't use the iPhone's now-infamous location file nor does Fenner Drives track employee whereabouts.

Other companies have been doing this for years in certain industries, such as transportation, via tracking software, such as TeleNav Track.

Apple (AAPL) iPhone Not Only Device Involved

Privacy advocates slammed Apple last week after researchers found that some iPhones record location information. Like all phones, the iPhone needs to know its location in order to connect to the right cell tower. The iPhone logs this location information in an unencrypted file.

Can this file be used to keep tabs on employees and executives? "Absolutely," says Forrester analyst Chenxi Wang. "This location history file is perhaps another data source for [mobile device management] systems."

Yet location information obtained via a smartphone's GPS chip isn't anything new. A host of mobile apps ask the user to enable the smartphone's GPS feature for location tracking. Wireless carriers also log location information but usually won't release it without a court order.

While Wang doesn't think a location file like the one stored on the iPhone exists on an Android phone, Android itself transmits the phone location data back to a Google (GOOG) server periodically, according to a discovery made by the Wall Street Journal. Last year, Duke University researchers found that some of the most common Android apps transmit geo-location data to third-party ad or content servers, Wang says.

At the enterprise level, mobile management and security software vendor Zenprise gives companies the option to pull location information from BlackBerries, Androids and Windows Mobile phones and store it on the corporate server. The main reason companies activate this feature is to be able to find lost or stolen devices or to route field service technicians to nearby customers, says Ahmed Datoo, chief marketing officer at Zenprise.

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