Apple has finally broken its silence on the iPhone tracking controversy, posting a lengthy FAQ on its website last night.
The company explains in the FAQ that it is not stalking its iPhone customers, but is instead trying to get more accurate location information. It also admits that there is a bug in the software that is making the iPhone store too much information.
Last week, researchers discovered that the iPhone has been logging and storing location information on users for the past year. The information is stored in an unencrypted file on the iPhone and is also backed-up in an unencrypted form on computers running iTunes. The data is also sent to Apple.
The fact that Apple has been storing location information on consumer devices — unencrypted and without customers' permission — has caused an uproar in the privacy community. For a week, Apple has refused to comment on the situation. Now, it's explaining its side of the story.
In the FAQ, Apple says that it is not tracking users' whereabouts. Instead, it said it is logging the locations of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell phone towers that are close to the iPhone, and is maintaining a database in an attempt to improve location-based services. Apple said that it cannot track individual users with the location information that is sent to the company because it is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form.
"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," Apple said in the FAQ.
But the company did admit that it may be storing too much information about users' locations. And it said that it will soon fix this in a software release.
"The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly. We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data."
Apple also admitted that users should be able to turn off the location logging feature on their phone when they disable location services on it. But a bug in the software has also prevented this, the company said.
In addition to collecting information about Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers, Apple said that it has been "collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years."
Apple admitted as well that it is providing some anonymous information about users to third-party developers to help debug their apps, and may also provide information to marketers.
"Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them)," the company said.
Apple said that it plans to release a software update in the next few weeks that will reduce the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hot spot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone, cease backing up this cache and delete this cache entirely when the Location Services feature is turned off.
Finally, Apple says that in the next major iOS software release, the cache will be encrypted on the iPhone.
CEO Steve Jobs also went on the record about the company's plans to answer inquiries made by US government officials, including the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
"I think Apple will be testifying," Jobs said in an interview with All Things Digital. "They have asked us to come and we will honour their request of course."
In the interview, Jobs said that such technology requires education on the part of consumers, something that could be improved. "As new technology comes into society, there is a period of adjustment and education," Jobs told All Things Digital. "We haven't — as an industry — done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here. As such, [people] jumped to a lot of wrong conclusions in the last week."
Among those who have queried Apple on the purpose of the location database file are Democratic Representative Edward Markey, Democratic Senator Al Franken, Democratic Representative Jay Inslee and Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan. Letters were also sent to Apple, Microsoft, Nokia, Google, Research in Motion (RIM) and Hewlett-Packard (HP) by House lawmakers earlier this week, who wanted to know what kind of information is being collected, for what purposes and if there is a way to disable the practice. Many of those questions have been answered by Apple, though several remain.
In the interview, Jobs declined to comment on the activities of what competitors are up to, saying only that "some of them don't do what we do."