Confirmed: iPhone and iPad secretly track and store your location
May 1, 2011
Apple’s iPhone and iPad have been tracking the locations of users in a hidden file, according to The New York Times (http://nyti.ms/eTvBSm).
Computer programmers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, presented their findings last week at the O’Reilly Where 2.0 technology conference in San Francisco. Their research showed the iPhone and 3G iPads have been logging the location data for the past year after a software update installed a new hidden file on the mobile devices.
The location and time, which are tracked through cell phone towers and Wi-Fi networks and stored on the devices, are copied over to users’ hard drives when the devices are synced with a computer, the programmers said.
Apple stayed silent on the issue for a week until Google, which was also found to have a tracking program on phones that use its Android system, responded with a statement that the information collected was anonymous. Apple then followed in kind, mirroring Google’s anonymity claims, according to a recent USA Today article (http://usat.ly/l7TNXu).
“It doesn’t matter how Apple explains its way out of this,” said Chenxi Wang, a vice president of Forrester Research who specializes in security and risk. “Just the fact that consumers know that their phone is being tracked is a very big deal.”
Apple should allow customers to opt out of being tracked, said Ian Glazer, director of Gartner Research identity and privacy group.
“There is no way to really turn this tracking off,” he said. “It needs to be visually obvious, or in the settings, to see that this is happening on your phone.”
A blog post by Allan raised the issue of “how Apple intends to use [the information] — or not.” Is Apple gaining access to the information in any way? And why it is being stored at all?
Apple claims it is creating a database of cell towers and Wi-Fi hot spots that users have used, which can then help phones better orient to a signal when GPS signals are sketchy or unavailable.
Apple’s purported purpose clearly did not require the data to be stored for long periods of time, and Apple has since reduced the storage time to seven days. Google always had a shorter time period for the data stored on its Android phones.
Google and Apple have agreed to testify before a Congressional committee May 10, according to the Hindustan Times (http://bit.ly/iwu0Et), about consumer privacy issues related to mobile technologies. Apple also faces possible action by data protection regulators in the European Union, according to Bloomberg (http://bloom.bg/kUFtD1).