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Apple Replies To Location Tracking Concerns

Apple Replies To Location Tracking Concerns

Last week it was revealed that iPhones can track your location. The Guardian published a report stating that iDevices that use 3G can gather and store your location and this data could be used to historically track your movements.

A storm brewed.

Senator Al Franklin gave Apple a grilling about privacy fears and S.Korea & Europe launched an investigation.

Apple hit back by saying Android also tracks its users and the tracking within the iPhone was a bug, and will be fixed.

Today Apple published a Q&A about their tracking of users to alleviate consumer concerns. Apple says that users are simply confused by their collection of data. Apple simply maintains a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your location to help your iPhone calculate its location when needed.

Surprised? I mean, how else would location services work?

Apple did address some security concerns in their Q&A and they say that an iOS update will use encryption to provide a layer of security on top of their location tracking service.

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.

4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).

You can read more questions answered by Apple by clicking through to the press release.

Apple will release a software update for iOS what will:

  • reduce 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.
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