Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

Summary: Apple has responded to worries about the iPhone and iPad collecting location data. An iOS update aims to quell location tracking concerns.

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Apple has responded to worries about the iPhone collecting location data. According to the company, the ability to store location data---specifically the backup of a cache of crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower databases---will be fixed with an upcoming software update.

Last week, two researchers noted that the iPhone and iPad was storing location data. This data could be used to track your every move. Since the Apple flap, worries about location tracking have emerged about Android devices too. The headlines have now turned into regulatory and legislative queries and Apple is trying to set the record straight.

Given the flap, which I argued was overblown, Apple had to say something. Be sure to read the Apple Q&A closely. There are multiple nuances in the document.

The main points:

  • Apple maintains that it isn't tracking your iPhone, but is maintaining a database of hotspots and cell towers around your location. This data helps the iPhone calculate location for services quickly. It's triangulation.
  • The database utilizes a subset of a crowdsourced information, but not all the data. The cache is backed up but not encrypted. Apple maintains this is a bug and the backup of the cache will cease.
  • Apple says it can't locate you based on your geo-tagged hotspot and cell tower data.
  • The company said that having a year's worth of location data on the iPhone is a bug that will be fixed. Apple says the iPhone doesn't need more than seven days of data.

Add it up and Apple attributes the location tracking dust-up to bugs and a misinformed public. In its Q&A, Apple said:

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 sound bite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.

Translation: The media blew this location thing out of proportion. The industry needs to detail these location issues better.

The big question here is whether Apple's missive on location data will calm the storm. My guess is that it might---just a smidge though. It's clear that location-based services are useful, but more disclosure will be needed. Look for a few headline seekers on Capitol Hill to use the issue for attention.

More on the issue:

Topics: iPhone, Apple, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Smartphones, Wi-Fi

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115 comments
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  • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

    When is tracking not tracking? When Apple does it. Apple fanboys will give Apple another pass for flubbing up.
    mstrsfty
    • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

      @mstrsfty This is not "tracking". The phone does not record when you were at the locations it has cached, nor does it record how many times you have been at those locations. Furthermore, it will also have cached locations that you will have never visited.
      bobthedino@...
      • Timestamp data?

        @bobthedino@...

        I understand there is a timestamp on each of those datapoints. Having that you could see the order in which the entries were made and work out a general movement of the phone over time. If that isn't tracking what would you call it?
        Xennex1170
    • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

      @mstrsfty yes. Apple can do no wrong and everyone is out to get them. Tracking is tracking.
      sbaker@...
      • Not tracking is not tracking...

        @sbaker@... : ... until the anti-Apple zealots say it is.
        Vulpinemac
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @sbaker@...

        If tracking does not share that data with anyone - it is any more tracking than your GPS?

        You GPS unit actually stores your every move and many sync this with your computer.

        SO when you scream about TomTom & NavMan tracking you I might just think you are serious.

        Until then I will just think you are an Apple hater making fraudulent claims based on a false statement and impuning the reputation of people less stupid than you are.
        richardw66
    • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

      It seems you do not understand that Apple was not receiving this data? Did you know that Win 7 phones also store this data? Try to use some intellectual curiosity.
      john_gillespie@...
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @john_gillespie@...

        Yep, Windows 7 Mobile does, but it only stores the last location and nothing more. Android stores locations for one hour. iOS however, was storing every location you had been for the last year. So yes, they were also "tracking", but Apple with iOS was far more invasive while Microsoft with W7M was the least.
        cdigan
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @john_gillespie@... Yes they were!
        slickjim
      • Wrong, again

        @Peter Perry

        As shown in the other thread, NO, they were not.
        This is OLD NEWS. Detailed packet analysis has CONCLUSIVELY shown that the consolidated.db file is NEVER, either in whole or in part, sent to Apple.
        DeusXMachina
      • data being sent to Apple

        @john_gillespie@...

        Apple itself has claimed that it takes that data from the phone every 12 hours (see response they made to the letter from Representative Markey [http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2010/07/apple-privacy-location-markey-congress-iphone.html]).. So Yes, they do get that data even if in part.
        Xennex1170
      • ZDNET, fix your damned comment system

        @ Xennex

        That is NOT what Apple is saying. Please note, ESPECIALLY Peter Perry. Apple periodically sends cell phone tower data. This data is randomized, and has NO ID information. It also periodically saves cell phone tower and WiFi data in consolidated.db. It also stores location data from other people's phones there.
        It does NOT send the data IN consolidated.db, in whole or in part. THAT data stays on the phone.
        Since both data sets are contain the same TYPE of data, these data sets sometimes overlap. But they are NOT the same data sets.

        Ugh, don't you people read?!?
        DeusXMachina
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @cdigan Please explain how they were invasive?
        non-biased
    • Just like ANY fanboy...

      @mstrsfty What about this huge delay of the WP7 update that gives the device copy and paste? Or how about WP7 lacking this basic functionality upon release? The iPhone lacked this and all of the WM drones would come here and ask how a modern smartphone could be released with such basic functionality and yet now you WP7 fanboys give it a free pass.

      Or let's touch base on the random SMS "bug" that the Android devices have... again the fandroids have given that one a free pass. Not to mention the carrier crapware and the fact that one has to root the device to get rid of it and run the latest Android OS.

      The point I'm trying to make is that ALL devices have issues and yet somehow it's the ones with Apple that get overblown by you ABAers and tech media looking for page hits. And ALL fanboys no matter what their stripe will give their fav products a free pass while spewing FUD and distortions about the "opposing" product.
      athynz
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @athynz

        You change the subject. I never stated WP7 or Android was perfect. But they have not denied that tracking is not tracking.
        mstrsfty
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @athynz Well said and conveniently mstrsfty didn't seem to refute any of it, just tried to do what he accused you of doing, change the topic.
        non-biased
      • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

        @athynz Back Away From The Kool-Aid! Traxking being compared to a copy and paste patch really doesn't make you look good!
        slickjim
      • ZDNET, fix your damned comment system

        @mstrsfty
        Actually they most certainly HAVE denied it. If you are not going to check basic facts, you have no business making declarative statements.
        DeusXMachina
    • RE: Apple: Can an iOS update, 'education' quell the location tracking flap?

      @mstrsfty They are going to testify that this isn't tracking in court. Honestly - give it up. Apple are not going to lie about it, they can't, they are under too much scrutiny.

      You want Apple to be caught doing something "naughty", fine but this isn't it...
      jeremychappell
    • When is not tracking, tracking?

      @mstrsfty : When the anti-Apple zealots want it to be.
      Vulpinemac