Apple Responds to Locationgate

With the controversy surrounding the data being gathered by smartphones with Apple and Google operating systems, Apple has decided to come out with an explanation of what exactly it is doing and why. Here are the salient points of what they call a location Q&A:

  • Apple says it does not track the location of your iPhone, and it never has or will do so.
  • The reason this has become an issue is companies such as Apple haven’t done a good job explaining the complex technical issues at work.
  • Apple is maintaining a database of WiFi hotspots generated by tens of millions of devices sending encrypted information regarding the location of hotspots so as to be able to provide accurate location information when GPS satellite tracking information is not available. It cites usage in a basement as an example of why it needs to do this.
  • This crowd-sourced database is too large to fit in an iPhone but a subset of it is stored on iPhones and can be encrypted or not – based on user settings in iTunes. Researchers were confused by this data which was being backed up onto local PCs – but Apple plans on updating its software soon and at this point it will stop backing up this information.
  • Apple cannot locate a user based on its geo-tagged WiFi information.
  • Apple has been storing up to a year’s worth of location data and the company says this is a bug and going forward they will only store seven-days’ worth of location information.
  • Another bug according to Apple is the device continued to update WiFi and cell tower data from the crowd-sourced database even if location data was turned off.
  • Apple is collecting crowd-sourced traffic data in order to provide accurate traffic data for its users.
  • Apple provides anonymous crash data to third-party developers and the company’s iAds platform allows anonymous geotargeting of ads but requires user approval before sharing location data with an advertiser. This can be used to provide a nearby retail location for example.
  • Apple is a strong believer in user privacy according to the company.
  • The next major iOS update will encrypt location data.

My two cents are it is suspicious that there are two bugs associated with tracking information for an extra 51 weeks as well as tracking location information when a user turns off location tracking. How is it there aren’t more bugs related to forgetting to track data? Moreover, if Apple is indeed using the location of its users to start a new traffic service – and one can argue this will be a significant differentiator – isn’t it incented to capture and use as much location information as possible to allow an accurate historical record of traffic patterns. Certainly, if I worked for Apple and privacy wasn’t a big issue for me, I would track all information I could and use this information to make my product better than the competition.

Will users forgive Apple for suspicious bugs which reduced the privacy of its users? Of course they will – they always do. But now the question worth asking is what information are carriers tracking and keeping on file – and for how long? I still believe if you want to keep your location anonymous – you need to have your cellphone off.

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