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."