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Friday, 22 April 2011

Shock revelation: Apple iPhone tracking your location!

So, the news-wires have been humming the last day or two with revelations about a tracking feature embedded in the Apple iPhone.  Reports suggest that the iPhone stores your location at regular intervals without using the in-built GPS receiver.

This data is stored in a file called consolidated.db and is sync'd to your PC or Mac using iTunes when you connect the iPhone.

Salacious stories abound of how Apple are collecting this data for their own purposes and how police officers can search the data if they stop you.

The blogosphere has been alight with the masses up in arms.

Well, I'm going to buck the trend and illuminate some critical facts that are overlooked by some of those media outlets.

Firstly, the storage of you location is required by certain apps, such as geo-location services, the camera, shopping etc.  The method used is a triangulation approximation using GSM radio towers that your phone can detect.  Note, this is an approximation and nowhere near as accurate as the GPS receiver.

Secondly, there is no great conspiracy or cover-up in the capture or storage of this data.  Rather like the mass hysteria regarding Google intercepting unencrypted data from wifi channels as their StreetView cars pass by, the capturing of this data is not being hovered up into a central Apple database to be used against you in some future point in time.  Yes, it is sync'd to your computer, but it is not transferred to Apple - it is against California State Law for them to do so.  Before people say "when did the law make any difference", consider the hundreds of millions of iPhones in use and think about it for one moment: would Apple really risk a law suit that could bankrupt them due to the scale of products sold if they were tracking users locations?

Thirdly, the storage of this data is in fact not new!  It has only been recently re-discovered, but was publicized in 2010 and discussed in several papers at the time.  The data file has been moved to a more readily accessible location, but that is only to allow apps to access the data more easily.

To put all this in context, some years ago, I happened to be first on the scene of an accident between a car full of young lads and a tractor on a rural road in Southern Scotland.  Grabbing my mobile (it was not a iPhone, in fact it was not even a smartphone - just a first generation GSM phone), I dialed 999. Being distracted for a moment by the occupants of the car, I could not think clearly if I was on the A70 or A71.  On calling the emergency services, I said, I'm on the A71, to which the operator said, "I think sir you are on the A70, is that right?"

The point being, the emergency services were geo-locating my position based on GSM radio signals and were able to confirm my location.  No big brother, no paranoia, just a straightforward use of technology for a useful purpose.  I'm sure the young driver of the car was thankful the ambulance arrived at the right location rather than 20 miles away on the A71!

Now, I'm no Apple "fanboi".  I use some of their products for business because they help me get my job done.  I do have concerns about some of their business practices, tying users into using iTunes and the App Store, but that is another story for another time.  In this case Apple are being hounded for being a successful company and there may well be an element on those who complain the loudest being just a tiny wee bit jealous of a successful product.

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