An Ethical Dilemma – Should Apple Use Their Many Resources to Locate Stolen iPods?

From ST, Intro to GIS

There has been a lot of talk about new gadgets available to the general public, such as navigational tools that can be used in cars, handheld GPS systems, and so on. Apple’s new iPhone is just one of the many new technologies that come with GPS applications. Because these new toys are so expensive, iPhones, iPods and other similar items are often the target of theft. An ethical dilemma is then raised: should Apple use their multiple resources to help locate the stolen goods?

Apple’s iPhone comes equipped with GPS, which, according to Peleg (2008), is “a “constellation” of 24 well-spaced satellites that orbit the Earth and make it possible for people with ground receivers to pinpoint their geographic location”. It is usually accurate with 10 to 100 meters. Not only can iPhones and iPods be tracked using GPS, they can also be located using Apple’s massive servers. According to Hartley (2008), the first steps after acquiring an Apple product would be to register the device through Apple iTunes, the company’s music service. To register, the client must enter the product’s serial number as well as their personal information, such as name and address (ibid.). Apple “stores this information on its server so that it can recognize an individual’s iPod” (ibid.). Whenever an iPod or iPhone is plugged in, it is “calling home to Apple” (ibid.). Apple can therefore lay out on a map the location of every Apple user in the world. They can also track the frequency of use, they can track consumption per country, per region, and so on. This tool provides locational information every time someone plugs in their iPod.

The use of GIS can be harnessed for mapping and analysis of geographic data. In this instance, the information gathered by Apple’s servers could potentially, if not already, store spatial features in a coordinate system, which would reference each particular Apple user on earth. If this is the case, a stolen iPod could be located the second it is plugged in to a computer, or tracked using GPS. There are various websites dedicated to locating stolen iPods, but the true solution would be more implication from Apple.

Apple has the capability of locating and pinpointing any given iPod based on the serial number. Apple’s chief executive officer also announced that “the company maintains an internal “kill switch” which can shut down and erase any application, both in the company’s online store and on every user’s iPhone, if the software is deemed to be harmful or malicious” (ibid.). If this is the case, some argue it would be possible to “kill” an iPod just as easily as it would be to erase an application.

It would, however, be too expensive to create some sort of theft monitoring system, because since the launch of the first iPod, there has been well over 100 million sold worldwide. Should this type of security be a priority for Apple? In my opinion, if they are storing data containing names and addresses linked to serial numbers, one of the benefits should be the peace of mind in knowing that if an iPod or iPhone is stolen, it can be located again. These gadgets are expensive, and sometimes contain very valuable information. They can store massive quantities of information, which does make them very valuable, even if not for monetary gain. Although it would be extremely hard to track the number of lost or stolen Apple products throughout the world, perhaps a division of Apple should be dedicated to developing this program in the future.

7 Responses to “An Ethical Dilemma – Should Apple Use Their Many Resources to Locate Stolen iPods?”

  1. Johannes says:

    Brilliant idea. When one buys an iPhone one could buy into an insurance scheme that pays for locating a stolen unit. That may have to be a two track coverage: first pay in advance to be “member” of the iPhone insurance, but if you lose your iPhone also pay a small amount (could all be done through iTunes) to prevent frivolous searches (such as behind the cushions on the couch).

    Please note: your statement above: “Not only can iPhones and iPods be tracked using GPS…” is a.f.a.i.k. wrong: iPods do not have GPS.

  2. Johannes says:

    Dilemma: the little matter of privacy and who protects it. The ease with which governments, corporations, hackers, etc. are extracting information through the internet and from internet providers and in this way are invading our privacy is shocking and we really should be a lot more worried.

  3. botherStefan says:

    Ethical dilemma? Please…

    Just because you can, doesn’t mean that you should. I could argue that college textbooks (have you purchased one of those recently?) should all have RFID tags attached, and that the publisher is ethically bound to help recover lost or stolen textbooks.

    Is General Motors ethically bound to help me recover my lost or stolen Malibu? If someone wants to provide such a service for a fee, then fine, but casting this as an ethical dilemma is a bit over-the-top.

  4. Johannes says:

    I alluded to the fine (or not so fine) line that may be crossed when personal, private data are being used (or abused). Done any international travel lately? Apple may know to the square meter where an iPhone is located, and in most cases its owner as well, but what happens when a government demands such data to track an individual, or a hacker stealing this information and abusing/selling it, or Apple using this information for commercial purposes. Please don’t be naieve in believing that data can not be used in a detrimental way. By the way: you added the “ethical”. I did not imply that GM should trace your car or your books without your consent.

  5. kirasaw says:

    I have always thought this should be a service Apple provided. There should be a small fee for using the service and the trace/kill request should have to come from the Police and only for stolen iPhones/iPods. Tracing lost ones should not be done to prevent people from tracking down ex-wifes, ex-girlfiends and such.

  6. Joe Weingarten says:

    Apple has always refused to even help track stolen computers, even when offered for repair or warranty service and the dealer has to enter the serial number to order a part. No way will they do anything to help the poor customer track down any stolen or lost product. It’s not the Apple way.

  7. Scott Schuckert says:

    There is a plus side. Information that isn’t routinely gathered or retained, can’t be subpoenaed. There are worse things than not getting your lost property back.