Google and Apple: Smartphone Spies

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Today's smartphones are amazing devices. They let you check your email, surf the Web, watch YouTube, make video calls, or play Angry Birds from virtually anywhere. You can use one to find a four-star Italian restaurant within three blocks of your current location that's offering a 20 percent discount if you place an order in the next 30 minutes.

Sometimes, when the wind is right and a cell tower is within visible range, they even let you make calls.

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While you're doing all of that, they're watching you, scribbling down your location, and storing that information invisibly for an indefinite period of time. It's kind of like having an imaginary friend following you at all times -- one with a really large bank account.

(If I haven't already told you that your smartphone is spying on you, let me say it here: Your smartphone is spying on you. Also, I told you so.)

It turns out that when it comes to your location data, both Apple and Google have serious boundary issues. Earlier this week security wonks Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden revealed that iPhones and iPads running iOS 4 save your location coordinates and time stamps to a hidden but unencrypted file on the device. The reason for this? Jobs only knows, and He isn't talking.

Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting both Apple and Google routinely capture your phone's cell tower and GPS data without telling you about it. Even worse, they may be able to trace that location data directly to your device.

In a letter to U.S. Senator Ed Markey last year, Apple admitted to collecting cell tower and open Wi-Fi data anonymously to improve its location-based services. It has yet to comment about why it stores this data locally in an unencrypted file, however.

Apple-friendly blogger John Gruber (Daring Fireball) speculates that the location tracking file is merely a bug.

The big question, of course, is why Apple is storing this information. I don't have a definitive answer, but the best at least somewhat-informed theory I've heard is that consolidated.db acts as a cache for location data, and that historical data should be getting culled but isn't, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight. I.e. someone wrote the code to cache location data but never wrote code to cull non-recent entries from the cache, so that a database that's meant to serve as a cache of your recent location data is instead a persistent log of your location history. I'd wager this gets fixed in the next iOS update.

Well, maybe, but it would be nice to hear this from a somewhat more informed source -- like, directly from Apple.

However, it appears that Google can't fall back on the usual "we only collect this data anonymously and use it to improve your mobile searching experience and make the InterWebs a warmer and fuzzier place" defense. According to the Journal:

[Google's]... location data appears to be transmitted regardless of whether an app is running, and is tied to the phone's unique identifier.

Talk about a gift for law enforcement and divorce attorneys. What that means is that while it's still difficult to prove you were somewhere other than where you said you were, it would be possible to prove your phone was there -- and that might be good enough. If you're involved in anything the least bit shady, better keep your phone off, your alibis current, or your bail bondsman on speed dial.

Google still has the "oops, we didn't really mean to capture all this data and we're really really sorry" defense in its pocket, but after the Street View Wi-Fi spying scandal, that one is worn gossamer thin.

It's time for Apple and Google to stop stonewalling and talk about what data they're collecting and why. I'd also like to hear from the app makers, the telecoms, and everyone else who has access to our location data. You can tell us now, or tell Congress later.

Better yet, just stop collecting it. But I won't hold my breath waiting for that to happen.

Does location tracking frighten, offend, or just tick you off? Vent your spleen below or send a piece my way:

This article, "Google and Apple, smartphone spies," was originally published at Track the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

This story, "Google and Apple: Smartphone Spies" was originally published by InfoWorld.

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