iPhone location tracking - calm down conspiracy theorists

iPhone location tracking is big news today after researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden revealed iPhone tracker, a data-mining tool that allows you to view a map plotting stored location data that your iPhone deposits on your Mac.

Rory Cellan-Jones was on the Today programme attempting to explain it to John Humphries and the web is full of people explaining how sinister Apple is. Only, it’s not sinister whatsoever and it’s no alone in saving that location data. It’s great fun for conspiracy theorists and opportunistic politicians to jump on the bandwagon but really, the story here is a) old and b) a lot less scary than the headlines might make you think…


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Alex Levinson, a researcher who discussed iPhone 4 and iPad location tracking months ago, debunks one of the biggest claims going around since the researchers unleashed their data mapping tool – that Apple is collecting that data.

Levinson says Apple isn’t doing anything of the sort. An expert in forensic analysis of iOS data, he says: “Apple is not harvesting this data from your device…I refute this claim in full. Through my research in this field and all traffic analysis I have performed, not once have I seen this data traverse a network.”

Levinson also notes that if Apple was to mine location data in the way some reports have suggested, it would be breaking California state law which states “no person or entity in this state shall use an electronic tracking device to determine the location or movement of a person”.

He has a great point there: why would Apple want to open itself to huge legal battles by grabbing that data in unauthorised ways? Apple doesn’t make the bulk of its money through advertising in the way that Google does. It doesn’t live or die by having your data, it makes its cash predominantly from hardware and if you think it’s spying on you and stop buying it, Apple suffers.

On the question of permission to use some location data though, Apple made its aims on that front explicitly clear last year. In changes to its terms of service, Apple explained that it would use and share location data with partners including advertisers but retained the option for users to switch those location services right off.

Apple also says it anonymises all location data that it shares with other parties and never associates it with an individual device. It’s not the company doing it either. Google’s mobile terms of service are almost identical.

The researchers who created the iPhone location data mining tool note that those files resting unencrypted and easily accessible on your Mac leaves you open to a malicious party getting access to them and finding out where you’ve been.

The immediate conclusion is that we’ll see divorce cases resting on people digging into that data. But there’s already a simple way of avoiding that: iTunes allows you to encrypt your back ups, immediately making it impossible for the data mining tool to simply grab those files.

Levinson notes another important fact: the location data files (which rest in a database file called ‘consolidated.db’) are not new. There was simply a change in where they were stored with the introduction of multitasking and background location services with iOS 4.

Apps now have to use Apple’s API to run in the background. Those new APIs and the sandbox system implemented for 3rd party apps meant Apple needed to change the way the phone accesses location data. Apple has not kept this secret, it’s all there in developer documentation and every 3rd party app has to ask for permission to get at that data.

That the phone stores cell tower locations will be disturbing to some people and that is understandable but it is not true to suggest that the iPhone logs accurate location data. Cell tower locations can vast distances from your actual location which explains why many users of the iPhone location mapping tool have found their map shows them passing through locations they’re certain they didn’t visit.

As Wired UK’s recent privacy cover story revealed, almost everyone gives out vast amounts of data each day which can be pulled together in scary ways if someone chooses to do that. But is Apple stalking you through your iPhone? No.

It isn’t in Apple’s interests to spy on you. Apple wants you to keep buying its products. Details on location data are in the agreement you agree to when you download iOS updates. The big problem (as with every other software agreement) is that you’re required to read dozens of pages to totally get a handle on what you’re agreeing to.

Ultimately though, if you don’t want to use location services you can turn them off and if you want to ensure that the cell tower information is locked down, encrypt your back ups. And with government agencies able to easily get your phone data via court orders, Apple really is the least of your worries.

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