Over the last week, privacy concerns have led to a bit of paranoia regarding the iPhone and its ability to record and store accurate location data for its users. It was discovered that the iPhone and iPad 3G would log user data and time stamp it, revealing a relatively detailed map of where the user has been and when. The iPhoneTracker app allowed users to download the info from their devices or computers just to see what the iOS devices had been recording, and some of the results were a bit unnerving.
More recently, Steve Jobs addressed a concerned user’s e-mail saying that Apple does not and never has tracked its users’ locations. It was brief and curt, as Jobs’ e-mails usually are, so it left us with more questions than answers. This time around, Apple has finally decided to clear the air on its own site.
Here are some of the Q&A items on its site:
1. Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.
2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.
3. Why is my iPhone logging my location?
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.
So, Apple isn’t logging location — it’s maintaining a database of hotspots and cell towers around your current location. Oh! Well, I guess the fact that it’s basically logging your location is just incidental and not intentional. Great. Anyone who has downloaded the iPhoneTracker app to view their location history knows this is a load of crock.
Just how well is Apple playing the spin game this time around? Well, if the iOS devices really weren’t storing your data, why would the following update include stopping all those processes?
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.
Yep, makes a whole lot of sense there. So let me give you the “TL;DR” version of this: “We are not recording and storing your information. In fact, in a coming software update, we will stop the recording and story of your information if you’d like, or encrypt it when it is on.”