The revelation today that Apple iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads tracks and logs users' locations in an easily accessed file has created quite a stir. But how serious of a threat to your privacy is this data and who could be using it?
The first thing to know is that the data is not nearly as accurate as you might be imagining. The best guess of the researchers who discovered the data is that information on cell towers is collected rather than the more specific data that would come from the iPhone's GPS. This means that the phone or iPad "only" tracks you to the nearest tower instead of to within a few feet. (Apple still hasn't responded directly about then entire issue.)
The data on my phone certainly seems to support that theory. Here's what my usage in the New York City area looks like when mapped with the iPhone Tracker app:
However, if I wasn't supposed to be flying out of JFK Airport in Queens, the screenshot clearly shows that I was there or near there multiple times. However, the exact spot can't be pinpointed.
So, in highly compact areas like major cities, it'll be hard to pull personal details out from the collected date. Even though the location data is time-stamped, you'd be hard-pressed to figure out exactly where I live or work, for instance, since the cell towers my phone connects to cover so many blocks.
The location logs also seem to go a bit crazy sometimes when the phone is having problems getting a signal. This further muddies the data.
The problem is that the farther out you get from large cities and the more distance you travel, the less these things matter. While my life in San Francisco would be a bit hard to read from just this data, a recent trip to Texas was logged in exacting (and easily readable) detail as my phone passed from tower to tower.
Who Has Your Data?
We've got good news and bad news. The good news is that at the moment there's no indication that Apple is collecting this data from your phone remotely.
The bad news is that it would be fairly simple for Apple, or anyone else who was interested for that matter, to access the files from your phone or from the backed-up iPhone data on your computer. Hopefully Apple will take steps to close this security hole and provide some answers to why this data was being stored in the first place but, as smartphones become more and more location-aware, these issues become all too common. The files are unencrypted and relatively easy to locate.
If you're looking for a little protection, the iTunes option to encrypt your backups should at least protect the copies of your location data stored on your computer. Note: The version on your iOS device itself will still be just as easy to read. Here's where to do it:
Just about the only security these files had at all is that, up until today, almost no one knew they existed. That security is now gone.