Researchers have discovered that Apple's iPhone records timestamped GPS information in a secret file on every handset.
Most people who have an iPhone always have it on them. The device is incredibly useful for browsing the web, playing Angry Birds, and occasionally making a telephone call if you can get service. But unfortunately the iPhone is also useful as a surveillance device for anyone with the technical savvy to retrieve a simple text file. The tracking seems to have begun in June 2010 with the iPhone 4 update to the OS and the data is stored on the phone but is automatically transferred to a computer when the iPhone is synched without the user's knowledge. Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan plan to present the discovery at a conference in San Francisco today, which is sure to raise some privacy concerns about what Apple does with the data collected.
"Apple has made it possible for almost anybody - a jealous spouse, a private detective - with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you've been," said Pete Warden.
The file is recorded in both 3G enabled iPhones and iPads but the researchers did not find similar tracking in Android-powered phones. Warden and Allan have set up a website with a simple application that retrieves the information in the file and maps that data into an image of your movements.
What Apple intended the file to do is up for speculation, but it is worrying that the file is transferred when you set up a new device. "Apple might have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that's our speculation," Warden said. "The fact that it is transferred across [to a new iPhone or iPad] when you migrate is evidence that the data-gathering isn't accidental."
Privacy experts are up in arms over the existence of this secret tracking file. "This is a worrying discovery. Location is one of the most sensitive elements in anyone's life - just think where people go in the evening," said Simon Davies, director of a group called Privacy International. "The existence of that data creates a real threat to privacy. The absence of notice to users or any control option can only stem from an ignorance about privacy at the design stage."
While it's true that most phones record current GPS data, that information is only available to authorities such as the police or the FBI after a judge has issued a warrant for such surveillance. The fact that anyone can grab that information from your iPhone with a simple download seems like a massive oversight on Apple's part.
And why was it necessary to track that information anyway? What would Apple intend to do with the logging of its customers movements that it would risk such privacy concerns?
I demand answers, Mr. Jobs!