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Editorial: Don’t let technology get ahead of privacy

Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM

Do you think you managed to sneak into work late or duck out early in the last year without anyone knowing?

Maybe not.

The tech world is buzzing this week with the discovery that newer iPhones and iPads have been secretly recording time-stamped logs that reveal the past whereabouts of their owners. The devices also have made unencrypted copies of those records on users’ personal computers.

So, theoretically, a boss could easily check your iPhone, iPad or computer for a complete log of the times you showed up for work — or left — each day since last June, when Apple devices started running the latest software.

And if you happened to go to a ballgame on the date of that distant relative’s funeral? The secret is out.

Our guess is that not even tech-savvy people saw this coming. In fact, the only safe prediction anyone really can make in this rapidly advancing Internet, electronic, surveillance camera and phone-connected world is that there will be new, unexpected ways others can keep tabs on our daily lives. Who would have guessed when the I-Pass system first was installed on our tollways that personal I-Pass data would be subpoenaed in divorce proceedings?

Apple hasn’t yet said why it was storing the data. It’s possible it could be useful for new location-based apps designed to make our lives easier. Or it could simply be a mistake left over from a beta version of the Apple operating system. Among the government officials seeking an answer are U.S. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) and U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.).

The larger question, though, is how do we protect ourselves in an emerging world where others can assemble portfolios on each of us with mind-boggling detail. The privacy-oriented American Civil Liberties Union says it’s a mistake to let technology race ahead with no one in charge of sounding the alarm when things go too far

“Other countries, including Canada and some European countries, have created privacy ombudsmen who are tasked with thinking about these issues,” ACLU spokesman Ed Yohnka said. “[In America], we haven’t come to grips with these kinds of things. . . . Every time we use the things we depend upon, we expose ourselves in terms of privacy, and yet we don’t know it.”

The answer is not to stop technological progress in its tracks. Social media, Internet searches, location-based phone apps and other innovations have made our lives more efficient and rewarding. But each carries a cost in privacy. Text and photos entered on social media can live on long after we think we deleted them. And Yahoo, to personalize online marketing, is now joining Google and Microsoft in keeping records of Internet searches — which in aggregate can pretty much identify us — for 18 months.

Rapidly changing, vague and often-unread privacy policies won’t safeguard our personal information. We need a system that gives us a better heads-up so that Congress can be alerted in time to step in and prevent future abuses before they happen.

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