Apple's big location snafu

25 Apr 2011

Apple featured big in this week’s headlines. Firstly for its seemingly endless sales and profit performances and secondly for its ‘evil’ activities recording every iPhone’s location history in hidden file. Or course, the amount of evil actually being perpetrated depends on which news story you read.

If you happen to have missed all the hoo-hah, it centers around the discovery of a previously unnoted file present on iPhone and iPod devices that has been recording location and time-stamped data since the mid-2010 release of the iOS 4 software update. This effectively becomes a comprehensive log of all user movement and activities over a period of time. British researchers Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden reported the discovery at this week’s Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco.

Not only did they find this hidden ‘feature’ they also had the ‘audacity’ to release a program on the Internet that not only accesses the info on anyone’s iOS device but also cleverly displays its location data on a map for any date period. I could not resist the temptation but was concerned to find that not ALL my locations had been recorded! Could this be a bug in an Apple program? Heaven forbid!

It was, therefore, not surprising that attacks came from all quarters, and what a relief for Google now that Apple is attracting the attention of the conspiracy theorists! It’s not so much that the devices track location, that is a feature present on most smartphones these days, it is the issue that the user does not know of the file and that it is backed up by iTunes and transferred to a users new device, thereby ensuring its longevity, and potential access by unauthorized third parties.

Tracking the location of people using cell triangulation is a common practice, in fact, it is mandated in many jurisdictions for use by law enforcement agencies. Mobile operators even sell location information back to their own customers for child tracking, etc. as well as third parties looking for particular demographic groups.

The discoverers emphasized that there is no evidence that Apple itself has access to this data. However, the big stink for Apple is that they didn’t make the existence of the file public knowledge, or did they?

Those ever-vigilant (and sometimes anal) souls like myself, that bother to read all the Terms & Conditions confronting them will have noted that those on Apple’s iPhone Software License in Clause 4 (b):

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