Mobile Technology

Apple responds to iPhone location-tracking accusations

Apple has issued a public statement, responding to allegations that its iPhones have been secretly tracking the locations of their users
Apple has issued a public statement, responding to allegations that its iPhones have been secretly tracking the locations of their users
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Apple has issued a public statement, responding to allegations that its iPhones have been secretly tracking the locations of their users
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Apple has issued a public statement, responding to allegations that its iPhones have been secretly tracking the locations of their users

Last Wednesday (April 20th, 2011), tech bloggers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden reported that iPhones and 3G iPads running iOS4 were keeping a secret record of their users' travels in an unencrypted file. While there was no indication that the devices were sharing the data, there were concerns that if a person's phone were to fall into the wrong hands, their personal security could be compromised. At the time of Allan and Warden's posting, Apple had not responded to their inquiries. Yesterday, however, the company issued a statement in which it explained the apparent true purpose of the database.

In the original article, which appeared on the O'Reilly tech blog, the writers stated that the phones were likely updating the file whenever they were used, via cell-tower triangulation. Anyone with access to another person's phone, who knew where to find the file, could presumably see all the locations that the phone had been to for up to one year – or as long as the device had been running iOS4.

According to Apple, however, that is not the case. The company stated:

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone's location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

The company did admit that the iPhone probably doesn't need to be caching more than seven days-worth of that information at a time – the fact that it's storing data gathered up to a year ago is reportedly due to a bug in the software, which will be addressed in an upcoming free iOS update.

Another bug apparently sometimes causes the phones to continue updating their Wi-Fi and cell tower data, even after users turn off the Location Services function. The software update should address that problem, and will also cause the phone to delete the cache when Location Services is turned off.

While the cache is presently not encrypted on the iPhone, the company stated that it will be in the next version of iOS.

More details are available on the Apple website.

13 comments
Blixdevil
So in other words: Yes, they are tracking your location but for connectivity reasons.
Adrien
so how is it that Google gets pinged by privacy watchdog for collecting WiFi information when driving around for google maps, but the iPhone can send in hotspot information to Apple? Does no-one have a problem with that? I don\'t want some anonymous unknown iOs user sending my wifi information in to Apple, and tagging it with GPS markers. As for taking minutest to get a location from GPS. rubbish. Any GPS unit I ever used only took seconds. Triangulation from cell towers is less accurate due to multi-path propagation.
Richard Chen
Yeah....tracking you have nothing to do with our programs intentions.....we obviously didnt know what we programed and did not test to see if it would update offline and take info......also GPS obviously takes minutes to compute as to seconds........ This is just a bunch of excuses, this sounds just like FB w/ the collection of personal data while not revealing it, and Apple is just saying this cuz they got caught.........
Gadgeteer
I wish you guys would stop reporting on this as if it were something new. It was reported quite a while back and known even then as not transferring any data to Apple. It\'s on your phone, period. It doesn\'t go anywhere else. Besides, if you\'re that paranoid about tracking, don\'t forget that in the US, phone companies by law have to keep a permanent log of wherever you connect to their towers. They know a lot more about you than you think, and it\'s completely out of your possession. You can\'t see that data, erase it or control it.
Chris Beach
@blixdevil, one minor point, your publicly broadcasting Wifi, so what we \'the public\' do with the fact your broadcasting and where your broadcasting from is none of your business. If you don\'t want that then turn off wifi, re-engineer it so that its range reaches the walls of your house only, or block it by surrounding your house with a Faraday cage or something...
Aurin Ræder
Only a powerful gps chips (liek sirf3) finds a lock in seconds, i have had cheap ones that took 5 minutes, and the powersaving gps in iphone needs the other system to be fast, the alternative is an expensive chip, which still might struggle indoors and use more battery (notice the extensive battery drain and difficult logging on gps pocket cameras)
hec031
This is absolute Bull. The fact that they took so long to answer on this issue and then they do so with such absolute answers, but the week before it was \"No comment\", tells you these guys are covering up a gotcha moment. There\'s a much better chance that this was all intentional to help out law enforcement, rather than synergistic glitches like they suggest. It is no secret that companies like Google and Internet Providers willing help Law enforcement gather information on potential suspects (You). Apple knew exactly what they were doing, because no real glitch works that well 100% percent of the time and that seamlessly with other glitches serving the same end purpose of tracking (You) the user.
Douglas Shackelford
It\'s pretty clear to me that we\'re all just little fish in a big aquarium, playing with our bright, shiny little electronic toys while our big brothers watch over us... with all the best intentions and love in their hearts. Lesson to learn: Get over it, it isn\'t going away.
Charles Bosse
Of course your smart phone is collecting data on you - if you have a problem with that, then trade it in. Given that, however, locally stored data should be encrypted and deletable. Sure, lots of companies store or have stored potentially personal data in local, unencrypted files (MS, Google, many sites on the internet probably including this one) but then, many of these companies have also faced criticism and responded more promptly to the problem. Also, Mac has had a good reputation for security in the past and this will be a big black mark on something that had previously been seen as a strong point for their products. A week-long turn around time to even announce a security fix is also not very comforting to those who may have otherwise felt like \"sure, this is a mistake, but it will be fixed soon\". Gadgeteer: There is a difference between encrypted and unencrypted data. I may not like the amount of information our government collects on us, but I like even less the idea that there is a file that I can\'t delete that will tell any program that wants to know my whereabouts for the last year. At least when someone like Sony gets hacked, I can feel some sense that the problem is identifiable and short term. Chris: Whatever the law says about wireless information being public, I still think that it\'s in the best interest of corporations to be responsive to customer desires. Otherwise, the market may do what the courts will not. At least Mac could put in the effort to encrypt the file that stores this info. Also, why on earth do I need every network within 100 miles that I have been near in the last year to be openly stored on my phone? If I haven\'t been there in the last week I can wait 10 seconds (several minutes baloney, even on a low power chip) for the GPS to kick in.
Grant Crandall
What a bunch of sniveling, sky is falling PC schmucks. so big brother is watching, duh, whats new! Big bother has always and always will watch, so be honest and don\'t participate in criminal activity. It may pay off if you turn your car over in a ditch when it\'s just you and your blinking blue tooth ear piece waiting for big brother to save your suspicious, paranoid ass.
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