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Wednesday, April 27, 2011, 02:30 pm PT (05:30 pm ET)

Apple executives defend crowdsourced data collection in building new iPhone features

In an interview focusing on the issue of access to users' location data, Apple executives defended the concept of collecting anonymous data to provide valuable new services in the future.

The company's official question and answer response to location services issues noted that Apple was collecting anonymous user location data to build an improved traffic database that would power a new service related to maps "in the next couple years."

In an interview conducted by Ina Fried of the Wall Street Journal, Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs was asked whether he thought that companies like Apple "need to let people know specifically what you guys are doing with the information and choose whether to participate in these commercial projects, or do you think Apple and others should have fairly broad use of anonymized data."

Jobs responded, "If people don’t want to participate in things, they will be able to turn location services off. Once we get a bug that we found fixed, their phone will not be collecting or contributing any crowdsourced information. But nor will it be calculating location."

However, Apple's senior vice president of worldwide marketing Phil Schiller then questioned the legitimacy of the question itself, nothing that "sometimes it helps people to understand an analogy that describes what these things are like because they are so new.

"I would think an analogy of a crowdsourced database is every time you walk into a retail store, many retailers have a clicker that counts how many people come in and out of the store. Nobody really cares about that because it is completely anonymous. It is not personal data. It is not anything to worry about. It’s not something that people feel is private because it is really not about them. It’s a coagulated total of all traffic.

"These crowdsourced databases are sort of like that. Things like that aren’t so scary when you think about them in everyday terms," Schiller said.

Big Brother bears gifts

That's an apt analogy, because Apple already conducts anonymized data mining of foot traffic in its retail stores as part of an effort to improve how products are presented and how features such as Genius Bars and store cash registers are located. Nearly every retailer does the same thing.

On the web, Google and other companies regularly introduce products that have benignly ulterior purposes. For example, Google operated a Goog411 service that provided free, automated answers to callers' questions over the phone. Those calls were actually used to record realistic speaking voices in natural settings, data Google used to enhance its voice recognition algorithms.

Similarly, Google's reCaptcha project (originating in the School of Computer Science at Carnegie Mellon University) is used to provide a free security service for web publishers that challenges users to type the correct captcha as it appears to prove they are a real person. However, the words displayed by the system are taken from Google Books and the Internet Archive sources to double check the automated OCR work in correctly identifying scanned text.

Traffic will be the only new leak today, thanks

Apple's efforts to collect anonymous information from millions of devices to improve the accuracy of location lookups or to power new services (like traffic) are the same thing, its executives maintain.

When asked what other uses the company may make of collectively culled data, Jobs said only that "we mentioned the traffic service and I think that is all we are going to mention at this point in time before we have something to announce."

Pressed further about other the possibility of crowdsourced data being used for other purposes, Jobs said "we are building a crowdsourced database based on traffic and that is what we are saying."