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

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

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.

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