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Government officials want answers to secret iPhone tracking

A visualization of iPhone location data.
A visualization of iPhone location data.iPhone Tracker via O'Reilly Radar

Update: Information about Google Android tracking practices has been added since this story first posted.

While iPhone and iPad owners waffled between Skynet jokes and genuine concern over the confirmation that the devices are mapping their every move in accessible files for up to a year, Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., got down to business, firing off nine pointed questions in a two-page open letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs.

The tech-savvy senator cuts to the chase — the fact that iPhones and iPads running iOS 4 record and store users' locations in unencrypted files is serious. Sen. Franken's letter begins:

I read with concern a recent report by security researchers that Apple's iOS 4 operating system is secretly compiling its customers' location data in a file stored on iPhones, 3G iPads and every computer that users use to "sync" their devices. According to the researchers, this file contains consumers' latitude and longitude for every day they used an iPhone or 3G iPad running the iOS 4 operating system — sometimes logging their precise geo-location up to 100 times a day. The researchers who discovered this file found that it contained up to a year's worth of data, starting from the day they installed the iOS4 operating system. What is even more worrisome is that this file is stored in an unencrypted format on customers' iPads, iPhones and every computer a customer has used to back up his or her information.

 As well as igniting privacy concerns that make Facebook issues seem downright cuddly, the open cache of very specific information"[opens] the door for a jealous spouse, thief, or even a crafty trojan to take a detailed look at your whereabouts," writes Ars Technica. "And it's information that no one should have access to — not even law enforcement, barring a court order."

Advertisers are also hot to know where you go and when, so they can influence what you buy when you get there. According to a Wall Street Journal report, Google Android devices are engaged in a practice similar to Apple iPhones and iPads:

Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people's locations via their cellphones. These databases could help them tap the $2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to $8.3 billion in 2014, according to research firm Gartner Inc.

In the case of Google, according to new research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, an HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour. It also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier.

Of course, all smartphones track users — anyone who's ever approved an app request to use his or her current location should have that figured out. The big reveal here is that Apple stores that information on devices, unencrypted and for an entire year. Google's Android smartphones were not included in the study, so it's not known (yet) if the devices store location information, too.

Researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden developed an open source application, iPhone Tracker, to illustrate their findings. Msnbc.com reporter Rosa Golijan tested the app yesterday and found "an eerily accurate replay of my travels around my home." Further, "the location markers get unnervingly close to some of my favorite haunts."  [See the detailed report, complete with maps, here.]

It's not clear why Apple is recording this information, though the researchers believe Apple is doing it intentionally. Apple hasn't released a public statement, nor has the company responded to reporter requests for comments.

Here's what Sen. Franken wants to know:

  1. Why does Apple collect and compile this location data? Why did Apple choose to initiate tracking this data in its iOS 4 operating system?
  2. Does Apple collect and compile this location data for laptops?
  3. How is this data generated? (GPS, cell tower triangulation, Wi-Fi triangulation, etc.)
  4. How frequently is a user's location recorded? What triggers the creation of a record of someone's location?
  5. How precise is this location data? Can it track the users location to 50m, 100m, etc.?
  6. Why is this data not encrypted? What steps will Apple take to encrypt the data?
  7. Why were Apple consumers never affirmatively informed of the collection and retention of their location data in this manner? Why did Apple not seek affirmative consent before doing so?
  8. Does Apple believe that this conduct is permissible under the terms of its privacy policy?
  9. To whom, if anyone, including Apple, has this data been disclosed? When and why were these disclosures made? 

How should you feel about this?

"Don't panic," researchers Allan and Warden advise in an amendment to yesterday's report. "There's no immediate harm that would seem to come from the availability of this data. Nor is there evidence to suggest this data is leaving your custody. But why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it — or not — are important questions that need to be explored."

This paragraph was added after the original report posted, no doubt because people started to panic as people are wont to do. Yet it seems contradictory to statements made in the report's opening paragraphs, which note that the information "can also be easily accessed on the device itself if it falls into the wrong hands. Anybody with access to this file knows where you've been over the last year, since iOS 4 was released."

Given how freely we offer up our intimate details to a growing suite of social networks from location "check-ins" to photos of our children, ZDNet's Sam Diaz has a point when he echoes this "yawner of a development."  

Diaz also adds a very funny, tongue-in-cheek observation you might want to add to your Apple conversations, if only to enrage the fanboys:

Let’s flip things a bit and pretend it had been Google that was secretly storing a file that tracked your Android device’s every move. Oh, there would cries of foul streaming across the Internet. Governments would be holding emergency meetings. Blog readers would be screaming 'I told you so' across comments sections everywhere.

Instead, I’ve read nothing but calm and straight forward reports that are noting, among other things, that Apple doesn’t seem to be doing anything with the information — as if that makes it OK. When Google fessed up about collecting (unsecured) Wi-Fi data by its Street View cars, you would have thought by the reaction that the company had broken into homes and ruffled through closets and dressers.

That humorous aside does appear to be losing steam, given the update that Google engages in a similar practice. What's more, Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., joined Sen. Franken today, sending his own query to Jobs. Rep. Markey co-authored a set of privacy questions for Jobs last year, to which Apple responded in great detail. This is only the beginning.

"This incident raises questions about whether Apple is serious about user privacy," Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy researcher and Ars Technica contributor Timothy B. Lee said in the Ars report.

"If this was an accident, Apple needs to fix the problem and put in place procedures to make sure it doesn't happen again. If the data is being collected deliberately, perhaps in preparation for a future product, Apple should have clearly notified users and given them an opportunity to opt out."

The story further noted:

Apple told Congress last July that all location data collected by the iPhone remains private. According to Apple lead counsel Bruce Sewell, Apple does collect anonymous location data from iPhones in an effort to improve its own database of cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot locations, but that it only does this with user consent. The discovery made by Allan and Warden clearly shows that this is happening constantly without explicit consent like Apple treats GPS, however, and it sure isn't anonymous when it's accessible directly from the user's device. 

What can you do in the meantime? Allan and Warden advise Apple users to encrypt their iTunes backups by selecting your device within iTunes, then checking "Encrypt iPhone Backup" under "Options."

Related:

Helen A.S. Popkin is always going "blah blah blah" about online privacy, then she asks you to follow her on Facebookand/or Twitter … because that's how she rolls.