Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users

Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users

Now this sounds very dodgy indeed. Researchers have discovered that 3G-enabled Apple iPhones and iPads have been secretly storing a long list of users’ locations and time stamps, effectively creating a secret tracking file.

Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users

You’ve been tracked!

The hidden file containing the location info is transferred to any machine that’s been synched with an iOS4 device and – worst of all – the information can then easily be accessed because the file is both unencrypted and unprotected.

Burglar’s friend

As well as a list of timestamped GPS coordinates, the file also contains a list of Wi-Fi access points that the affected device has been in range of – and every time you access a map app on your iOS device that requires GPS, that precise location will also be faithfully stored.

So any ne’er do well that has stolen your Apple computer or iPhone can get their hands on a detailed record or where you live and where you work and – perhaps – schedule a burglary accordingly.

Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users

Intentionally logged

“Ever since iOS 4 arrived, your device has been storing a long list of locations and time stamps,” commented an O’Reilly blog post.

“We’re not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it’s clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups, and even device migrations.”

“Anybody with access to this file knows where you’ve been over the last year, since iOS 4 was released,” continues the blog post, which notes that the tracking file – named ‘consolidated.db’ – is present on both backup files created when syncing a 3G iPhone/iPad with iTunes, and on the iOS device itself.

“Why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it — or not — are important questions that need to be explored,” concludes the blog.

Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users

Check your logs (!)

Warden and Allan – the researchers who uncovered the secret log – have created a downloadable desktop application which lets Apple users check for themselves what location data their phones are retaining.

Apple: explain yourselves!

This looks like a really worrying breach of privacy to us, and we’re very interested to know exactly why Apple is maintaining this secret log.

Although it could be argued that network providers already have such location information on users, the point is that anyone wanting a look would need a court order to access it.

With this secret log, the timestamped details of your whereabouts are now accessible to anyone with access to your phone or desktop machine.

Such confidential information could cause all sorts of problems for users or, as a wag on urban75 commented: “Breaking news: 100,000 drug dealers have just thrown their iPhones into a river.”

Incidentally, the researchers could find no evidence of similar files being maintained on Android or other mobile operating systems.

[Guardian] – [O’Reilly]

2 Comments on “Apple secretly tracks the location and times of iPhone and 3G iPad users”

  1. Is this legal? Update from Wired:

    Sharon Nissim, consumer privacy counsel of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, said it is possible Apple is violating the Wireless Communications and Public Safety Act, which allows telecom carriers to provide call information only in emergency situations.

    “By asking for permission to collect location data, Apple may be trying to get around its legal obligations, by asking people to give up privacy rights they don’t even know they have,” Nissim said.

    She added that a potential privacy concern is that law enforcement would be able to subpoena these types of records from people’s iPhones or iPads.

  2. Note: If you’ve downloaded the mapping app and have been reassured that your data displayed wasn’t that precise on the map, take heed. It’s been intentionally obfuscated. The real data is far more precise.

    “To make it less useful for snoops, the spatial and temporal accuracy of the data has been artificially reduced. You can only animate week-by-week even though the data is timed to the second, and if you zoom in you’ll see the points are constrained to a grid, so your exact location is not revealed. The underlying database has no such constraints, unfortunately.”

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