iOS is watching you ... always watching!

iOS is watching you ... always watching!

Summary: Remember when the iPhone had that antenna bug? Well, it turns out that it now it is a bug, a bug that silently tracks your movements.


Remember when the iPhone had that antenna bug? Well, it turns out that it now it is a bug, a bug that silently tracks your movements.

Yesterday a story broke that iOS devices are secretly logging your locations multiple times a day and storing this information is an unencrypted file that's stored on your iDevice, and also copied to your PC/Mac when you sync with iTunes. But just how much of a big deal is this?

First, a quick recap. This data logging issue came to the attention of the blogosphere yesterday after two O’Reilly researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, published an article about location data being logged on iOS devices in an SQL file called consolidated.db. It turns out that iOS4 devices has been silently logging latitude and longitude information along with a timestamp ever since it was released back in June 2010, creating tens of thousands of data points over that time.

While it was Allan and Warden who were responsible for this matter getting the attention that it is now getting, the forensic community have known about, and have been actively making use of this information. The excellent book, iOS Forensic Analysis by Sean Morrissey and Alex Levinson and published in 2010 covers this along with many other ways of extracting information from iOS devices.

Note: Read this book (like I've done during the past few hours) and you'll never look at your iOS device the same way again!

Who else knows about this? Well, it seems that law enforcement do, and that some departments are routinely grabbing data from motorists stopped for minor traffic violations.

OK, so what do we know. This data logging started when iOS 4 was released in June 2010, although according to Morrissey and Levinson iOS devices were logging similar information prior to this release. There's no way to prevent the iPhone from logging this information (although owners of jailbroken handsets can download a tool that will wipe the data off the handset) as it is not dependant on whether Location Services are switch on on not. Location data stored in the file is gathers from cell tower positions and NOT from the GPS data. The data is pretty accurate overall, but there are situations where it can be off by over 50 miles.

Interestingly, consolidated.db also logs the estimate positions of all WiFi hotspots your phone sees, although it seems that this data is, for some reason, prone to wild inaccuracies.

The file is very persistent. It is copied to the iTunes iOS backup during every sync, and even if you replace your iOS device, the old file is copied over to the new device. The data is unencrypted both on the handset and in the iTunes backup (unless you choose to encrypt your iTunes backup, in which case the backup copy is encrypted) and stored in an SQLlite database.

There's a lot of data collected. The average seems to be around 40 per day, but I've seen instances where the logging can jump into high gear and the iOS device can be logging at over ten times this rate. It seems that the more you move about, the more the handset logging. It's hard to get a better fix on what actually triggers the handset to log a new position - it's certainly not triggered by a timer or changing cells or anything along those lines. 

Grabbing the data from unencrypted iTunes backups is trivial whether you're on Mac OS X or Windows. It takes just seconds to do and leave no trace. Data from these apps has been deliberately 'fuzzed' for privacy, but I've been able to successfully remove the fuzzing from the Windows application.

Those of you who choose to encrypt your iTunes backups might be feeling a little smug, thinking you're safe. Think again. There are tools that will chew away at the problem of figuring out the iTunes backup password.

Failing access to an unencrypted iTunes backup (or a backup of a system that has a unencrypted iTunes backup, it is possible to grab the file directly off of a handset, but it will need jailbreaking (not all that difficult to do).

Feeling smug because you use Android? Hmmmm, maybe you shouldn't as there's now a tool available that parses the files from the Android location provider too.

Why is Apple doing this? Well, all wild theories aside, I tend to agree with F-Secure's Mikko Hypponen as to the purpose of this file:

Where did Apple get their location database? They used to license it from a company called Skyhook. How did Skyhook obtain this information? Well, they had their own cars drive around the world, just like Google.

However, the Skyhook database is expensive. So beginning with iPhone OS 3.2 released in April 2010, Apple started replacing the Skyhook location database with their own location database.

And the real question is: How did Apple create their own location database? They did not have cars driving around the world. They didn't need to. They had existing iPhone owners around the world do the work for them.

If you run a modern iPhone, it will send your location history to Apple twice a day. This is the default operation of the device.

Here's what I think Apple should do:

  • Come clean about what's going on here - why is this data being stored in the fist place?
  • Encrypt the data - this shouldn't really need saying ...
  • Offer the user a way to delete the data, or even prevent it being logged in the first place!

What can you do in the interim?

Thoughts? Questions?

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

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.


Log in or register to join the discussion
  • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

    What happened to you? All of a sudden your titles sound more Anti Apple? ;-)
    Ram U
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

  • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

    Or... just get a real phone with real security.

    Android users, be smug. The location data Android picks up isn't even close to as bad as this junk that THEY NEVER EVEN TOLD YOU ABOUT.

    You can turn off location on Android. No way for iOS.
    • Wrong yet again.

      @Droid101 Says Android keeps essentially the same info, or at least used to. They don't know about Android currently because Google hasn't open-sourced it. Android does prune the data better, but this is considered, by people who know better, to be a simple oversight on Apple's part (data is randomized and sent to Apple every 12 hours, so there's no reason to cache it forever-and excellent technical reasons [b]not to[/b]). People have known about this for a while, but it's just not that big a deal. And not only did Apple tell the government about this in July of last year, they also explained that it can be turned off.
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!


      Android is now being reported that they not only log your location every few seconds and transmit it back a few times an hour, they also log the name and signal strength of all nearby WiFi networks. I can't wait to see if WP7 is doing the same (I have a Samsung Focus).
      • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

        @Bookmark71 Since you started reporting it right now? Because that is completely incorrect.
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

      @Droid101 In my case that is somewhat wrong - I have a jailbroken iPhone so I can delete the data from my iPhone - it does not turn it off but the data won't be there for Apple.
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

      @Droid101 You can actually turn off all location based stuff in Android. And it will not know where you are. I know becaues its usually off for me and my phone doesnt know where I am unless I turn on GPS or Cell tower positions.
  • Then what?

    All these articles seem to imply that this database has no function. "Don't worry folks, just delete this file from your phone and save yourself from the Steve Police. That's the only thing that will happen, because the phone was collecting this data for no reason at all." And you Android users: your phones are collecting the same data, also for no reason.<br><br>The tech press deserves a big, loud, BOO for the way this is being handled. You're freaking people out, telling them that they're being spied on, you're telling them to delete a file with no view to the consequences of doing that... and here on ZDNet you're doing it two or three times a day.<br><br>Why don't you find out why two separate development teams ( and possibly three-- has anybody looked in WP7 for similar data?) at two separate companies wrote and deployed code to keep a local copy of cell tower locations? Was it a slow week at work, or does this file actually do something useful that the user will miss if he follows your advice?
    Robert Hahn
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

      @Robert Hahn <br>Wrong, totally wrong. At least as an iPhone 4 user, I deserve to know that it is there inside the phone. Google is also doing this is not the answer. I was also thinking like you last evening, but I think this may not be big, but as a consumer I should have been notified, thats what Google and Bing location services do. If it were from Microsoft, you would be one of the first person to blame Microsoft and requesting Microsoft's death on these talk backs. Please, we know who you are.
      Ram U
      • I can feign ignorance too

        Whoa! I just found out that my web browser is keeping a cache of every page I visit! Call the police! Call the FBI! It's all in secret files with secret names! Who knew?
        Robert Hahn
      • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

        @Robert Hahn
        At least in the web browser I can delete the cache, and everyone knows that as soon as you hit the internet, your ISP records everything. No big secret there. If you think I am blaming Apple, here you are totally wrong. I am not blaming Apple and I am least worried about that information. But I feel dejected if someone try to do it on me behind using my own device without informing me.
        Ram U
      • Can you clear the cache of a web browser

        @Robert Hahn
        as easily as you can clear this log file off of an iPhone? ;)
        John Zern
    • You say its to keep a local copy of cell towers

      @Robert Hahn
      but there's no proof of that. You sound as though you don't want people to find out what this log is for, as you are adament that it's for keeping cell tower location. And your longitude and latitude. And a time stamp.

      How about Google "accidently" recording wifi info? What was the issue there? They were just keeping a record of unsecured routers, nothing of concern to anyone.

      How about we wait for Apple to come clean with what it's for? How secure is the data? maybe Apple won't use the information for neferious purposes, but someone else might...
      John Zern
      • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

        @John Zern
        I just read that Android is sending back the name, location, and signal strength of WiFi networks near your phone. Not quite as bad as the packet sniffing they did with street view but they have people unknowingly returning this info. I hate the idea of congress getting their nose in this but it may be time for a law that cell phones come with a simple to understand privacy policy on what information it discloses. Obviously the carriers know your approximate location but that takes a court order to disclose for anything other than providing their service.
  • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

    **** this (No, Mr. Dawson, Apple isn't getting a free pass either. But to their credit, they don't sniff user's wifi.... That we know of.).
    The one and only, Cylon Centurion
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

      @Cylon Centurion 0005
      Android returns the name, location and signal strength of WiFi networks near your phone. Supposedly no packet capturing though....
  • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!

    I'm laughing now. All you people that just HAD to have the latest toy, pay top dollar for it, and now it's spying on you. And most of you will say, that's ok. As long as no one makes a big deal out of this, Steve Jobs will continue to produce more phones that will spy on you even more. Stop BUYING THEM!!!!!!!
    • RE: iOS is watching you ... always watching!


      And what do you suggest we should by instead? Android spy-phones?
  • Big difference between Android and iOS

    Google caches the data for a much shorter time and the cache is overwritten as new entries appear. Apple is caching all of the data ever since <b>you owned the phone.</b> You have a complete record of everywhere you've been since you walked out of the store with your shiny new toy.<br><br>Edit: It's best to have multiple credible sources when posting:<br><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"><a href="" target="_blank" rel="nofollow"></a></a></a></a></a></a><br><br>Also on Android it's optional and can be turned off by going to "Settings" > "Location and security" then un-check "Use wireless networks". It states right underneath this setting "Location determined by Wi-Fi and/or mobile networks".