Fuss over iPhone user-tracking information a tempest in
by Alan Zisman (c) 2011
published in Business in
Vancouver May 10-16, 2011 issue #1124 High Tech
Last week’s big news (as I write this) in the High-Tech Office: Apple’s
iPhone and iPads (at least the 3G models) track users’ locations.
Unfortunately, as is too often the case when the media try to report on
technology, the headlines created more confusion than clarity.
Yes, it’s true. Those Apple devices – along with smartphones running
Google’s competitive Android operating system – store a file logging
locations (and times). The fear: your boss could use this information
to learn when you were at a hockey game rather than at work. Your
spouse could find out when you were out with your other significant
Was “Locationgate” news? Not really. Apple released information on this
a year ago, but no one paid it much attention at the time.
Is it a serious security concern? Again, not really. The information
resides on your phone and on backups on your computer. Someone would
need to physically have access to one of those systems to get the data
– and the log file on the iPhone (etc.) is cryptic and hard to access.
How precise is the data? Not very. When I checked the location
information stored by my iPad, it reported I’d taken it to Nanaimo.
Except I hadn’t. The closest I’d been was Bowen Island. At best, it
showed that I’d visited a neighbourhood, not which stores I’d
(If you want to see where your iPhone or iPad thinks you’ve been and
you sync to a Mac, download the iPhone Tracker utility created by
O’Reilly researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden from petewarden.github.com/iPhoneTracker.
No Windows version, sorry.)
Should you be worried? Not as far as I can tell. Without physical
access to my device or my computer, the information – vague and
unreliable as it is – isn’t accessible to anyone. And if my iPad went
missing, I would be more concerned about someone having access to my
email and contacts, rather than knowing that I was in downtown
Vancouver at lunchtime last Tuesday.
In fact, most smartphone users routinely give permission to share
location information with a variety of apps. Those apps, in turn, share
the information with advertisers, who pay to target users with
location-specific ads. (According to the Wall Street Journal, the
iPhone location data is collected even if “location services” has been
disabled by a user.)
If you’re nervous about someone with access to your computer accessing
the backup log file, you can – in iTunes when your iOS device is
plugged in – choose the option to “encrypt iPhone Backup.” You can also
install Apple’s free Find My iPhone app, so you remotely wipe your data
if your device is lost or stolen.
My location is routinely tracked in lots of other ways. When I visit my
rented storage locker, for instance, I enter a code when I drive in and
out and when I use the elevator. Have you used an ATM or a credit card
lately? Or logged into your office’s network? In each case, your
location was stored in a database.
Apparently, the iPhone (etc.) location log file – which doesn’t include
accurate GPS data - is used by Apple and Google to fine-tune their
abilities to (at least roughly) provide location information based on
nearby cellphone transmission towers and WiFi routers. This information
is then used on WiFi-only iPads, for instance, which lack GPS
receivers, to provide rough location information.
There have also been reports that Apply may be using the location
information to check on the strength of mobile phone signals,
evaluating both its phone and its mobile providers’ performance.
Apple’s Steve Jobs has stated that Apple does not track users; data
sent to Apple does not identify individual users.
So, iPhones, iPads, and Android smartphones and tablets keep a record
of where they are – more or less. And they periodically “phone home”
with that information. Should we treat this as a major invasion of
privacy? Probably not.