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Apple blames iOS data tracking on firmware bug

updated 09:25 am EDT, Wed April 27, 2011

Promises improved security in future updates

Apple is not tracking the location of iPhone users, the company insists in an official FAQ responding to worries about a location history file in iOS 4. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," part of the FAQ reads. "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."

The company explains that the file is actually based on a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and celltowers around a person's location, used to speed up location-finding versus just using GPS, or in place of it via triangulation. "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," the FAQ says.

The file is a local cache of the broader database, claimed to be "protected but not encrypted" except if a person has chosen to encrypt their backups in iTunes. Apple defends the data as imprecise, relaying information about hotspots and towers that can be "more than one hundred miles away" from a device. It adds that because the data is anonymous and encrypted when transmitted, individuals can't be identified.

The sheer quantity of information kept in the cache -- potentially going back as iOS 4's launch last year -- is said to be a bug. "We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data," Apple elaborates. Also allegedly a bug is continuous updating of the cache even when Locations Services are turned off.

The company is promising to put out an iOS firmware update "in the next few weeks" which will reduce the size of the database cache, prevent it from being backed up, and delete it entirely when Location Services are switched off. A future "major" iOS update will do on-device encryption of the file. The company has meanwhile disclosed that it is collecting "anonymous traffic data" to create "a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years."



By Electronista Staff
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    Comment buried. Show
  1. JuanGuapo

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Jan 2008

    -28

    "Users are confused..."

    Not a good way to talk about your customers but whatever. I don't have a problem with what Apple is doing nor is it any different than what other smartphone mfgs are doing. However, I do have a problem with how they bungled it....as they did with Antennagate....as they did with the original iPhone pricing.... how anyone is still an iPhone customer after the string of media fumbles... oy vey.

    "Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date."

    CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, NBC, etc. and just about every news outlet already did that for you. The horses have already left the barn but I'm glad to see you finally closed the door.

    "This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data"

    Except by GPS tagging, of course. No mention of UUID in this FAQ either.

    "This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). "

    Then why not say so early on? Unless of course you were waiting to announce the white iPhone to drown out the controversy.

    "Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy."

    So letting it get to CNN-type proportions, or get to Senate panel investigations meant you had your customers' best interests in mind?

    Comment buried. Show
  1. chippie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: May 2009

    -26

    Time For Governments To Get Involved, Tech

    companies are regularly crossing the line of what many people think is private. Also, all this location relaying is draining batteries and interrupting other device activities. I am sure apple sees nothing wrong with these either! Only what the owner of a device sees as priority uses should occur, not what the maker and seller see as commercial information gathering/trolling. Call in the governments!!!!!! Is it not logical for me to wonder if who I call is being noted or even my calls being listened to?

  1. malax

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: Aug 2006

    +19

    A sign of the times

    We are so used to instant information and instant reactions that the blogosphere goes ballistic for a week while Apple formulates this very reasonable explanation and response.

    a. Here's what the file contains (i.e., nothing to worry about, not what people were imagining).
    b. Here's why we collect it and keep it on your phone.
    c. Oops, it's a bug that we aren't keeping that cache as small as possible; to be correctly shortly.
    d. We could and will protect it better.
    e. When transmitted to Apple, the data are anonymous.

    In other words, "yawn."

    Any yet in our hyperbolic culture this has reached the status of a "-gate" (like "antenna-gate" where apparently introducing a design that performs better than the previous design, but not as it could if it had been implemented differently is a scandal) because it took Apple about a week to present this response. Live and learn.

    Comment buried. Show
  1. chippie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: May 2009

    -16

    @hayesk- Read The Article And Comprehend-

    this locating is continuously occurring and caching data which uses energy. Further, when I purchase a device I don't expect it to run task that I have not asked it to perform. I know you love me and can not bare to not reply to my comments, even when you really have nothing to say. I have long been on to you.

    Comment buried. Show
  1. chippie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: May 2009

    -15

    Time For Governments To Get Involved, Tech

    companies are regularly crossing the line of what many people think is private. Also, all this location relaying is draining batteries and interrupting other device activities. I am sure apple sees nothing wrong with these either! Only what the owner of a device sees as priority uses should occur, not what the maker and seller see as commercial information gathering/trolling. Call in the governments!!!!!! Is it not logical for me to wonder if who I call is being noted or even my calls being listened to?

    Comment buried. Show
  1. chippie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: May 2009

    -14

    @gskibum3 -I USE Government(s) Meaning All

    the ones in the world that are concerned with consumer rights. And privacy. The woefully inadequate U.S. government is not synonymous with the term government.

    Comment buried. Show
  1. chippie

    Fresh-Faced Recruit

    Joined: May 2009

    -12

    @Athens You get a life- If they are collecting

    data as the article states, some of it unintentional, then it is fair to wonder what other data they may be collecting. The owner of any phone can choose to not have their calls logged and sms's saved. I am sure that YOU know this! However this location approximating at present still can not be stopped by the owner of the phone. See the difference?

  1. Arne_Saknussemm

    Forum Regular

    Joined: Apr 2011

    -4

    That Explains it!

    Now we know why Apple avoided multitasking in the first couple of iOS releases - the poor hardware was way overpowered with tracking the users to leave any resources to any other app!

  1. elroth

    Junior Member

    Joined: Jul 2006

    +7

    yeah

    Someone has a chippie on their shoulder regarding Apple. You guys are hilarious.

  1. Arne_Saknussemm

    Forum Regular

    Joined: Apr 2011

    -1

    Dear elroth

    You are right, this is getting way too serious an politicized.

    Don't want to look like a regular conspiracy theory / chemtrail / UFO maiac.

    The tinfoil above my cranium is securely held to the inside of a beautiful panama hat I got on my last visit to the the southern portion of Nevada in the western United States, 83 miles (133 km) north-northwest of downtown Las Vegas, on the southern shore of Groom Lake, where I went, eh, eh eh, fishing... Yeah that's it swordfish fishing...

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