Apple Denies Tracking Users, Promises Software Fix

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Apple has denied it is tracking your location using a cache of cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot locations stored in a database on your iPhone, 3G iPad and iOS backups on your PC. "Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," the company said in an FAQ posted on its site. All your iPhone is doing, according to Apple, is maintaining a database of cell tower and Wi-Fi access point locations to improve your device's location services. Nevertheless, Apple plans to issue a software update soon to address some of the concerns raised by the presence of the location database on iOS devices and iOS backup files.

iTracking snafu

Apple was put under the privacy microscope after researchers released iPhone Tracker, an open source application. The program accessed an unencrypted cache of location information stored in your iOS backup files on your PC. The information from the file in question (consolidated.db) was then plotted on a map and could contain as much as a year's worth of location information. The researchers said this information showed the iPhone was "regularly recording the position of your device into a hidden file."

Not tracking you, Apple says

Graphic: Chip Taylor
But Apple says that interpretation is false. "The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone," Apple said. "But rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone."

Apple says the consolidated.db data is a subset of a much larger database of cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot locations used to help your iOS device quickly calculate its location when you need it to. "Calculating a phone's location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes," Apple said. "[The] iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites."

Apple said the database is too large to install the entire file on your phone, and instead sends your device a subset of that data that is pertinent to your region. Apple builds its database by receiving anonymous and encrypted cell tower and Wi-Fi access point information from user devices. You can find out more about Apple's location data collection policies here.

The company also said the location database stored on your phone is not encrypted but that it is protected. Apple did not explain what kind of protection this file has, but you can read Dan Moren's discussion of this issue here.

Traffic information

An interesting tidbit Apple included in its FAQ is that the company says it is also collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database. Apple says it plans to introduce an improved traffic service to iOS users in the next few years.

iOS software update coming

Graphic: Diego Aguirre
Apple says it will issue a software update in the next few weeks to address some of the issues related to consolidated.db. The company plans to reduce the size of the location cache saved on your phone, blaming a bug for the fact that your iOS device could have up to a year's worth of location data. "We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data," Apple said.

The company also plans to have your iPhone cease backing up this file on your PC, making it harder to access. Finally, Apple will delete your iPhone's cache of location data entirely when you have Location Services turned off. On Monday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the iPhone's location cache continued to log cell tower and Wi-Fi access point locations even with the iPhone's location functionality turned off. Apple blamed this issue on a software bug.

Unanswered questions

Apple's FAQ is well worth reading (you can find it here), but it also fails to address some outstanding issues. The company reiterated, for example, that it receives cell tower and Wi-Fi access point location information from iOS devices. This information helps Apple maintain its worldwide database for improving location services on iOS devices. Apple says the information it gets from iOS devices is completely anonymous and is sent back to the company in encrypted form. But the company did not spell out what specific information (if any) it receives from iOS devices in addition to cell tower and Wi-Fi access point locations.

The company also suggests that the data it gets from iOS devices for its cell tower and Wi-Fi access point database comes from consolidated.db by saying your iPhone maintains this database, as opposed to simply reading the data found in consolidated.db. It would be more helpful if the company spelled out exactly where the data it pulls from your device is coming from.

Nevertheless, it's good to see Apple finally responding to concerns over its location database. But we'll have to wait and see whether these answers will satisfy lawmakers and iOS device users.

Connect with Ian Paul (@ianpaul) and Today@PCWorld on Twitter for the latest tech news and analysis.

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