Apple makes profit while tracking your movements

Jonathan Morris
April 21, 2011

Apple may be celebrating its figures today, like 18.65 million iPhone sales in the first quarter of 2011, and net profits of $5.99bn, but it is also going to have to explain why iPhone users are being tracked without their knowledge.

Although nobody has suggesting that Apple has any sinister purposes in mind for how it may use the data it’s gathering, recording the movements of every iPhone user (and 3G enabled iPad user) since the release of iOS 4 in 2010 is still going to concern or anger many people.

The data is stored in an unencrypted file that can be accessed from a computer after syncing with iTunes. This means, given the right tools, anyone can access data that would normally be available only to network operators or Government agencies.

Secondly, the phone records your location by using cellular base station IDs, not GPS, as detailed by Ars Technica. This means it is operating all the time. On the positive side, the battery isn’t impacted as it would have been by using GPS, but it does impact on overall accuracy – although Apple probably doesn’t need to know to the exact metre where you were.

With everything happening in the background, nobody knew it was happening until now. What’s more, there’s no way to disable it without disabling the phone on the phone.

So, has Apple done anything wrong? Well, given you must accept a multitude of terms and conditions – including giving Apple your consent to have your movements tracked – it would seem not. However, not protecting the data seems like something that has raised a few eyebrows.

What Mobile wonders how many iPhone users would refuse to buy one even if they knew this was happening? Very few, we’d imagine. If you have an iPhone, are you upset? Will you ditch the phone until Apple makes the tracking an opt-in process?

If you fancy seeing where you’ve been, you can find out with the iPhoneTracker App (Mac).

Update: It seems that none other than Steve Jobs himself has been very quick to point out that Android does the very same, while denying Apple does.

Google's opt-in notification

Android does, if you opt-in, use your known location (or approximate location based on cell-ID) to record Wi-Fi hotspots/routers and send it back to Google, anonymously. This will then allow other users to get a position using that Wi-Fi data at another time. It’s a clever system, but one that did spark controversy when Google was found to be capturing data that could have contained personal information.

To confuse matters more, Apple has now come out with a statement that says it doesn’t collect personal location data but was in fact gathering the location of wireless hotspots, like Google does, to aid navigation without the use of GPS. Apple has gone on to say that it will issue an OS update in the future that will change the way the data is gathered, and enable full and secure encryption.

So did Apple do it or not? Well, use the app above to see for yourself!

Here’s the statement from Apple:

Apple Q&A on Location Data

Apple would like to respond to the questions we have recently received about the gathering and use of location information by our devices.

  1. Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone? Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.
  2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this? Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.
  3. Why is my iPhone logging my location? The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.
  4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone? The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, 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. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).
  5. Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data? No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.
  6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today? This data is not the iPhone’s location data’it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.
  7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?  It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).
  8. What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data? Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.
  9. Does Apple currently provide any data collected from iPhones to third parties?  We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them).
  10. Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important? Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.

Software Update

Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

  • reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
  • ceases backing up this cache, and
  • deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

About the Author

Share this article