iPhone Tracking Not News, Not Unique, and Not Ominous

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The revelation that Apple iOS devices track your location is not really news, it's not unique to Apple, and the information gathered doesn't really have the ominous Big Brother implications it might suggest.

Apparently, the sky is falling. Security researchers presented findings that Apple mobile devices are gathering and storing data on your every move throughout the day, and that news has sparked a virtual panic among the media and privacy advocates.

Your iPhone may know where you've been, but not accurately enough to matter.
The thing is, though, that this isn't really news. Another team of researchers had already conducted an extensive investigation of the types of data that are stored on iOS devices. The findings were presented in January at the 2011 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, and the paper is available as an IEEE publication. The consolidated.db file that stores the information is even mentioned in a book written by these researchers which was published in December of 2010.

Granted, the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences isn't exactly a mainstream event, the general public doesn't keep current on IEEE publications, and a book titled iOS Forensic Analysis isn't likely to make the New York Times Best Seller list--so it is understandable that this research managed to stay off the radar. However, another reason that the data stored on iOS devices should not be news is that Apple already told Congress last summer that it was gathering this information to build a database of cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot locations.

Not only is the fact that Apple is collecting location data not news, but Apple is not the only "culprit" doing so. Google's Android mobile operating system also monitors and logs user location data. For that matter, your wireless provider also has a database that can identify which cell tower your mobile device was connected to at a given time.

Don't panic, though. In most cases, the data is virtually useless for identifying your actual whereabouts. I know because I have tried out the AT&T Family Map "tracking" service, and discovered firsthand just how inadequate the information is. Tracking information based on actual GPS coordinates would be valuable, but cell tower tracking only places your location within a square mile or two. I quit the service because I already knew my kids were somewhere within a square mile or two. What I wanted to know is where they were specifically within that square mile.

I also found that cell tower location data is not helpful for apps like DataMan that log where your iOS device was when it consumed data. While sitting in one place in my house, the DataMan app managed to log my location at three or four different locations that were blocks apart from one another.

So, let's recap. The news that Apple iOS devices store location information is not a revelation, the location tracking activity is not unique to Apple, and even if you delivered the database file to a stalker or cyber criminal on a silver platter wrapped in a red bow they would essentially only be able to determine that you are somewhere within the city limits.

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