Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

Summary: So, how easy is it for someone to grab that tracking data that your iOS devices stores on you? And once in their hands, what information can they learn about you? How accurate is that information?

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So, how easy is it for someone to grab that tracking data that your iOS devices stores on you? And once in their hands, what information can they learn about you? How accurate is that information?

To find out, I decided to see how easy it would be to grab my wife's data from her iTunes backup, examine it, and see what I could learn from that experience.

Note: for the record, Kathie did give me permission to to this in advance, but I didn't let her in on how I was going to grab the information.

My chosen method of attack ... log in to the Windows system that she has iTunes installed on remotely, copied over the nphonetrack tool and used that to output a CSV and KML file. The process took literally seconds and I was easily able to remove all traces of the deed.

Note: Using the tools currently available to grab the data from the iTunes backup file you do need direct access to the machine or of a backup of that machine. Also, the iTunes backup file needs to be unencrypted (and in this instance it was ... something which surprised me actually).

My 'breach' gave me access to 42,012 data points going as far back as the end of June 2010 (iOS4 was released June 21st, 2010). The nphonetrack tool adds an artificial 'fuzzing' to the data, blocking all data for a week under a single timestamp and also 'quantizes' the data into grids roughly 2Km x 3Km to offer a certain level of privacy, but as I'll show you later, it wouldn't be hard for anyone with a little programming experience to modify the tool to remove this fuzzing and allow pure output of the data stored.

I then took the KLM file that nphonetrack created and pumped the data into Google Earth, which dutifully placed all the data points onto a map.

42,000 points is a lot of data to visualize, but if you have a reasonably good clue as to what your partner's been up to over time, you start making sense of what you see. You see business trips and personal trips, as well as movements around and about the local area. I can see trips done via car, I can see trips done via train.

But I can also see evidence of visits to places I didn't know anything about.

For example, it seems that Kathie has taken a number of trips to Ireland over the past few months.

Hmmmm, secret trips that I knew nothing about, eh? What have I uncovered here? Something interesting perhaps?

You bet! What I've uncovered here is just how wildly inaccurate this data can be. What's going on here is that the iPhone was connecting to cellphone transmitters in Ireland when it was in fact on the west coast of Wales, UK. The handset was claiming to be at locations over 60 miles/100 Km from where it actually was at that time. Sure, there's a technical reason why (the handset was connecting to the nearest available transmitter), but if you (or your spouse) didn't happen to know this, you could have a lot of explaining to do!

So, what have we learnt from this? Several things:

  • iOS devices collect a lot of information about your movements (I'll have more to say about this in a later post)
  • Grabbing the data is trivial if you have access to the phone, the PC the phone syncs with, or access to a backup of that PC
  • Encrypting your iTunes backup adds an obstacle to grabbing the data, but encryption can be cracked
  • From this data you can learn a lot about someone's movements over a long period
  • The data can be highly erratic and inaccurate
  • Conversely, the data can be very accurate, and the overall volume of accurate information can lead you to think that all the information stored is accurate

Remember how I said that nphonetrack 'fuzzes' the date and location data, well, if you're handy with coding, you'll easily be able to figure out how to remove this privacy guard. In fact, all it takes is editing three lines of code and recompiling ...

So, what do you think? Are you happy with your iPhone logging your movements, or is this a one feature that needs reigning in?

Adrian Kingsley-Hughes, with Kathie Kingsley-Hughes

Topics: Operating Systems, Apple, CXO, Data Management, Hardware, Mobile OS, Mobility, Storage

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25 comments
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  • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

    Thanks for reminding me. Thursday is bang MILF day.
    kenift
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @kenift
      Crap same here, I better stop recording my sessions with fat girls on my iPhone!!
      Hasam1991
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @kenift ROFL
      Jimster480
  • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spous

    Now THAT gives me a warm fuzzy feeling... really. As an iPhone owner and vocal proponent of the the iPhone I'm not happy with this. There is a site that debunks some of this (https://alexlevinson.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/3-major-issues-with-the-latest-iphone-tracking-discovery/) but I'm still not liking the fact that the data is on there for such a long time and is so easily accessible. Granted one would have to have physical access or be able to remote access the PC I use to sync my iPhone - and if they did that having my location tracked is the least of my worries...
    athynz
    • Gruber feels strongly it's a f-u.

      @athynz [i]" consolidated.db acts as a cache for location data, and that historical data should be getting culled but isn?t, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight. I.e. someone wrote the code to cache location data but never wrote code to cull non-recent entries from the cache,"[/i]

      He figures it will be fixed in the next iOS update. http://daringfireball.net/linked/2011/04/21/andy-ihnatko-location-log
      matthew_maurice
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @athynz
      Just a bug, Steve will fix it/...
      Hasam1991
      • by bug you mean

        @Hasam1991
        the congressmen initiating the investigation?
        Will Farrell
  • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

    Well the moral here is trust your wife, not some shifty log file!

    Actually it also shows how little we really have to worry about from this data - it is wildly inaccurate. I think it is more likely useful only for looking at the performance of the phone itself - rather than tracking someone.
    jeremychappell
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @jeremychappell I'd be more than likely to say that this is an example of bad information that could be abused by somebody of little or no intelligence. A little knowledge and a little dynamite can both spell big trouble in the wrong hands.
      pueblonative
      • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

        @pueblonative Except if you have very much of it you could use it to show you have a working transporter like James Kirk!

        It really isn't going to stand up to much challenge.
        jeremychappell
      • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

        @jeremychappell...
        Clearly you've never dated a jealous woman. Standing up to challenge holds no credit to a jealous and therefore irrational significant other. What they've decided is as good as the word of God and there will be no changing it.
        Some unfortunate folks actually marry those people before they allow it to manifest. My condolences.
        Zorched
      • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

        @pueblonative

        I agree. I had a look at the data from my iPhone and, like so many others, it shows me in locations I've never been. That could well be dangerous in the hands of someone who simply does not understand . . .
        Wakemewhentrollsgone
  • Still a lot to worry about

    Inaccurate data can be as damning as accurate data, for all the wrong reasons. In criminal cases, this kind of data is often presented as "infallible" to the juries who then place absolute faith in it. And it is yet another item that can be spoofed to intentionally cause problems for people (i.e. framing).

    Finally, if you are thinking of deleting this file, you might want to think again. Feds are now routinely charging anybody who deletes *any* kind of electronic data with obstruction of justice and destruction of evidence. It's happening on every kind of case from insider trading to terrorism prosecutions. Moral of the story is that the Feds think "protecting your privacy" is now equivalent to "covering up a crime".
    terry flores
    • Don't scare people...

      @terry flores
      The feds only care if you've deleted data if you are subject to an investigation or criminal proceeding. You have every right to delete that data otherwise. It would also be easy to create a schedule to delete these files. If asked, say "I always delete these files every week."
      Zorched
  • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

    Your experience confirms what many are saying about the database table called "CellLocation": it stores the locations of cell towers, not the location of the iPhone. The data you plotted does not tell you where your wife's phone was, it tells you where the cell towers were that your wife's phone contacted.

    There are also tables for WiFi transmitters and for CDMA Cell Towers.

    Keeping this data around greatly speeds up location services. It can take 12 minutes to get oriented to the GPS satellites; it takes under a second to get the ID of the nearest cell tower. If you know where that is, you're well on your way to knowing where you are.

    People need to stop acting surprised that a phone that can follow you around a map with a little blue dot knows where it is, and knows how to find that place again.
    Robert Hahn
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @Robert Hahn ... I agree. I've often wondered how the iPhone can quickly estimate your location if you're somewhere you've been before, but take longer if you're somewhere new. I think that this file is being used as a cache to speed up the process of estimating your current location.
      Adrian Kingsley-Hughes
    • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

      @Robert Hahn

      So why do they need a one-year log, rather than a simple lookup table - even with "most recent connection," if a timestamp is somehow significant? If I'm trying to look up something, having a single record would be substantially faster than sifting through a huge database of every tower I've hit somewhere.
      WebSiteManager
      • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

        @WebSiteManager
        Exactly.
        Ram U
      • You really didn't mean ONE record

        @WebSiteManager It would only be faster until the next time your iPhone wakes up in a place you haven't visited for six months. Then having six months of data could speed things up considerably.

        Whether the ideal number is six, or a hundred, or six months' worth, or a years' worth is something best left to the probability jocks.
        Robert Hahn
  • RE: Could your iOS device get you wrongly accused of cheating by your spouse?

    hope so!
    bburgess66