Is your iPhone stalking you?

Sure, Apple needs to answer some questions about its location data collection, but the issue isn't something to panic about. Includes video.

By Kim Peterson Apr 21, 2011 1:28PM
There's a lot of hullabaloo over the iPhone tracking story -- "Your iPhone is secretly tracking you all the time," the "Today" show warns -- but it's really not that big of a deal. This issue has been known since last June, and no one thought much of it at the time.

Why all the fuss now? Because two computer programmers -- one a former Apple (AAPL) employee -- presented a paper at a conference about it. The programmers also posted a free app for Mac computers that lets users see their location data.

Post continues after this outrageously alarmist video from the "Today" show about iPhone tracking:
I don't mean to dismiss the issue. There are questions here that Apple needs to answer, and so far, the company has clammed up about it. Apple upgraded its mobile operating system last year and inserted a new file that began taking snapshots of a user's location. The data isn't precise; it's a guesstimate based on nearby cellphone towers and Wi-Fi networks, not GPS technology. It's sometimes miles off.

But the data collection, along with the free app, is enough to make some users uncomfortable. "Suddenly I wasn't laughing anymore," Rosa Golijan writes for "Today." "I was too busy watching an eerily accurate replay of my travels around my home."

The biggest question seems to be why Apple would be doing this. Apple isn't answering, so that's given rise to lots of speculation. One expert thinks this is Apple's way of building a database of global Wi-Fi hot spots, and that seems to be the most logical answer to me. Apple even said so last July, when it sent a letter to two congressmen saying it was collecting "cell tower and Wi-Fi access point information." You can read the letter here (.pdf download).

Another expert thinks Apple is trying to track the performance of its phone and network, not user movements.

John Gruber, a well-connected Apple observer, said a little birdie told him that the problem is either a bug or an oversight, since the history of a user's location should be getting culled but isn't.

So we don't know why Apple is doing this. The company is not collecting your data, says Alex Levinson, a network security engineer focused on the Mac operating system. It's actually illegal under California law to use electronic tracking on a person.

Apple stores the information on your iPhone, and it can be copied to your hard drive when your phone is synced to a computer. So no one will see it unless he hacks into your network or steals your phone. Even then, a rough draft of where you've traveled isn't going to mean much.

"It is more symbolic than anything else," technology pundit Tim O'Reilly told The New York Times. "It is one more sign of how devices are collecting data about us and potentially sharing it with others. This is the future. We have to figure out how to deal with it."

It's not just the iPhone either. Police can already get this location information from Verizon (VZ) and other cellphone carriers, the Times reports, though courts have differing opinions on whether they need a search warrant.

If you're really worried, just turn off the location-services feature on your iPhone. Open the phone's settings app and turn the "Location Services" feature to the off setting, PC World reports.

So don't panic. But O'Reilly is right. This is the future. Foursquare and Facebook Places can see your location. Same with Twitter. Same with a thousand other current and future gadgets and websites we'll use.

I'm more outraged by Facebook's ongoing privacy-breach shenanigans than by this iPhone issue. But Apple does need to answer some questions immediately. Now that one U.S. senator has written chief executive Steve Jobs a two-page letter demanding answers, I think the company will open up soon.


Apparently you have never heard of the "UFED Physical Pro" which is a device that can suck all data, including erased, from any phone in 90 seconds or less. And even more alarming is that the Michigan police already  have this device. This would include that GPS data you mentioned, which can not be turned off on the IPhone. You can only turn off the apps that are using it. So it now appears that electronic monitoring of cell phone users is here. And just like the Ipass info being used in court for "you name it" I am sure this location data will also be used in court for ???   I only wonder how a person would be able to defend themselves in court when the evidence was already on that reconditioned phone the got last month? Or even worse imagine that as a lawyer or doctor, your phone may contain info that is client/patient  lawyer/client confidentiality, how then would you be able to put that genie back into the bottle.  
To check out the device I am referring to use the link provided.

Apr 21, 2011 2:27PM
just one of many Apple toadies.  odd how Apple violates your privacy and folks like this make excuses for them before finally admitting they don't know squat on the topic, other then  what they themselves read and infer from other peoples conjectures. Apple did it because they can - they make MSFT look like good guys these daze.
Apr 21, 2011 3:10PM
I can understand having a problem with this.  First, we didn't know it existed. Second, it's not just recent location history it tracks you for more than a year.  Why does Apple or anyone else for that matter need to know where you have been in the last year.
Apr 21, 2011 4:36PM

Sometimes users can opt-in or out of a feature. Apple didn't offer a choice here. But rest assured, when data is collected, it will be used. Regardless of reassurances.


Time to realize that we are building Big Brother's infrastructure, incrementally,  voluntarily and with our own money. 

Apr 21, 2011 3:32PM

Android phones can do the same thing.  I guess you could take out the battery...

Apr 21, 2011 4:31PM
Big whoop,  do people really think anyone cares where they are except for your girlfriend when you cheat on her?  Why do people think they are so important?  It is a good tool for law enforcement to use when needed.  Quit being so paranoid.
Apr 21, 2011 4:31PM
This is not new. Waaaay back in the 90s the tracking was in place for Sprint and AT&T phones of multiple manufacturers. Sprint had the option of turning the tracking off or keeping it on. AT&T came preset to on and stayed on. At that time the line was "for 911 tracking". Now that we know 911 does not track cell phones, ther is a different story, but, you have been tracked long before Apple got involved.
Apr 21, 2011 4:02PM
Apple needs to address this issue.  I don,t like cell phone having all this information and when my contract runs out its a prepaid cell phone for me. Don,t need a cell phone that keeps track of every move I make.
Apr 21, 2011 5:30PM

Obviously, Kim Peterson has no clue when it comes to technology.  There's no reason for a cell phone to log timestamped cell tower triangulation data on the phone for the purpose of determining the availability of Wi-Fi.  In fact, Wi-Fi has nothing to do with this log, so I'm not sure why she included any speculation about it to begin with.  Either she's a complete idiot or intentionally adding confusion to the discussion. 


Anyone who can access your phone or your computer (either physically or remotely, hello hackers) can access this data.  And if it's not a big deal, then please feel free to post your daily itinerary publicly on the web so that any burglars, rapists, etc. may feel free to know your every move. 


Please do not confuse this issue with GPS geolocation services.  This is a completely separate issue.  And although there is not proof yet that the file is being sent to Apple, that doesn't mean it's not happening.  It's not difficult to mask data to appear as normal traffic.  I guarantee if they could prove that Apple was collecting the data, there'd be an army of lawyers headed to Cupertino right now.

Apr 21, 2011 3:15PM
Tracking people is just wrong and its done every single day from the use of credit cards and debit cards, computer. Personally I do not use the iPhone and don't want one and am offended that I have to put up with the crap that comes to my computer. FYI, there are other agencies such as the postal service that are also tracking us. Next they will be putting chips in newborns and no one will be the wiser. I hope this causes the iPhone market to change it's tactics or if they don't then maybe people will stop using.
Apr 21, 2011 2:43PM
I dont see what the fuzz is about.  I used to have a mobile me account that allowed me to find my phone if I were to misplace it.  I am assuming that's part of the reason why apple has that "tracking" system in the software.  If people were really concerned about safety, then why do they post on facebook anywhere they go to?  sometimes even to use the toilet.  Facebook is rather more dangerous than an iphone feature that tells you historically where you have been (after u've synched it)
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