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Apple: Back Off, We Don't Track Your iPhone

| 27 Apr 2011 15:35
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Apple responded to allegations that iOS 4 automatically logged the location of all iPhones by claiming that it does no such thing.

Yesterday, Senator Al Franken wrote a stern letter to Steve Jobs, President and CEO of Apple, over the concern that all devices running iOS 4 have been recording every location in a non-encrypted file that is shared whenever you back up the device with iTunes. Two researchers claimed to have found the file and even created an application to map the data to get an accurate representation of the movements of each iPhone owner. People were upset because such logs were created without the knowledge of the user, and could easily be used maliciously. Apple today clarified the purpose of the file and said that it would take steps to make the information more private in an upcoming update to iOS. There's no timetable for the update, but when it goes live users will be able to turn off the logging altogether by opting out of "Location Services."

"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," the statement read before snarkily asking itself why everyone is so upset by this news.

"Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date." That's the only admission that Apple might have done something wrong in the whole statement.

According to Apple, getting a precise measurement of the iPhone's location using GPS alone might take several minutes, so the iPhone cheats by triangulating using the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers. It gets that location through a "crowd-sourced" database that lists the GPS information for each hotspot and tower in the world, but guess where that information is crowd-sourced from?

"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 file on each iPhone isn't a log of where you've been then, Apple says, it's a subset of the huge database that's used to make calculations on the fly. Apple admits that it does collect location data from its users, but claims that it's all anonymous, encrypted and only used to add to the database in order to help other users.

Apple also addressed the concern that up to a year of location data is stored unencrypted on each iPhone, or that the device still logs this data when "location services" are turned off.

Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

  • reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone
  • ceases backing up this cache, and
  • deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

I'm glad that Apple responded, but I'm a little peeved that they are going to get off scot-free. It sounds like some location data is being stored despite Apple's claim but the upcoming iOS update will make the file a lot less useful to anyone who might try to follow you home or something.

Dang.

Source: Apple

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