Apple responds: ‘We are not tracking your location’

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There has been plenty of buzz about the iPhone and its operating system, iOS 4, and how it has been secretly tracking the locations of its users. After more than a week of silence, Apple finally responded.

The first response was allegedly from CEO Steve Jobs—who is still on medical leave from Apple—when he replied to an email received from a customer. The customer was unnerved at the realisation that their “location is being recorded at all times” and they asked Jobs why they should remain with Apple over, say, Android, as “they don’t track me”. Jobs shot back with one of his patented terse responses:

“Oh yes they do. We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.”

There was much debate following this message: what exactly did Jobs mean by “we don’t track anyone”?

In a lengthy question-and-answer style release, Apple answered this and many other issues.

Addressing the primary concern of the iPhone (and 3G iPad) logging a user’s location (and explaining what Jobs meant in his succinct reply), Apple said:

”The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, its maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location—some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone—to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.”

While the data may be compiled by hotspots and Wi-Fi data centres as far as one hundred miles away from a device, as was shown by Alasdair Allan and Pete Walden’s research, it is very detailed and unnervingly accurate.

The Fallout
After the release of Alasdair Allan and Pete Walden’s research findings on iOS4’s secret location tracking, one of the immediate questions many had was if any other mobile operating systems were doing the same thing. Sure enough, Google’s Android operating system was uncovered to have been doing something similar.

Much like research conducted by Allan and Walden on the iOS 4 devices, Magnus Eriksson created an application for Android devices which searched them for a file similar to the consolidated.db file found by Allan and Walden. The app he created, an “Android location service dumper”, contained what Eriksson refers to as “coarse data”. However, unlike the case of Apple, this data does not contain all location data ever collected.

Unlike Apple, Google released a swift statement that Android had location tracking issues as well, saying:

”… all location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymised and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”

Despite the statement, there was still a flurry of reaction online. From privacy advocates to average users, much of that reaction has been negative and has spread beyond the web.

US Senator Al Franken, in response to Apple’s location tracking, has both written to Jobs requesting an explanation and scheduled a Senate hearing on mobile transparency where he would want to question both Google and Apple. Also as US political analysis site, Politico reported, the Federal Communications Commission would be looking into the matter. And according to Bloomberg, the governments of Germany, France, Italy and South Korea are also considering investigations.

Facing these possible repercussions, Apple won’t be able remain silent forever. However, with such an outcry over Apple’s actions (and perhaps as a direct result of Apple’s silence for so long on the matter), some have decided to take the position of Apple’s defenders. Since there has been no indication that the iOS 4 location data is being transferred to a third party, many argue that this is not as big a deal as the media has made it out to be.

The other aspect of their argument has been that Apple’s recording and saving of all location data to consolidated.db was most probably a coding error. They say that consolidated.db was most probably meant to perform in the same manner as Android’s location files: recording data and then dumping it after a certain period of time. Apple’s statement confirmed this view stating that, “The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly… We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.”

Even if this is “not a big deal”, since the data is not being used harmfully (i.e. being transferred to a third party) nor was it being stored maliciously to begin with (it might have just been a coding error), Apple will most probably not escape being hauled before the US Senate, a process which can be both humiliating and harmful to the bottom line for any company.

Beyond these arguments, a more philosophical question has been raised: in an age of Foursquare location check-ins, geo-tagging tweets and Facebook location announcements, is there really anything fundamentally wrong with what Apple and Google are doing?

For people taking this stance, a simple clarification is needed: not even the most enthusiastic Foursquare user gives up their right to privacy—or in this case option to privacy—merely because they choose to not exercise that right from time to time.

As we share more of our lives using Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and indeed many other social networking services (particularly those that check in locations), Mark Zuckerberg may have had a point when he stated that privacy was no longer a social norm. However, just as Zuckerberg quickly learned after the many critiques Facebook faced as a result of its changed stance on privacy, social norms on privacy, though changing, are nowhere near set. Not only are they still changing, but they are also constantly being contested.

Despite what Jobs may or may not believe, a flat-out denial in the face of evidence, followed by finger-pointing in the direction of somebody else just isn’t enough. With the first lawsuits around this revelation already filed, Apple needs to come out and confront their accusers. Drawing back to the press release, “users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.” Well, this is the time for Apple to provide that education.

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