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This article was published on April 27, 2011

Finally, Apple speaks out about iPhone location data

Finally, Apple speaks out about iPhone location data
Matthew Panzarino
Story by

Matthew Panzarino

Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter. Matthew Panzarino was Managing Editor at TNW. He's no longer with the company, but you can follow him on Twitter.

Apple released a Q&A to the press early Wednesday morning to address the questions that have been raised about the iPhone gathering location data.

They have directly answered most of the hot questions about the iPhone’s gathering of location information and the privacy concerns that are related to this data being public.

First, Apple acknowledges that the iPhone gathers location data but that this data is not the precise location of your phone. Instead, it’s the location of the cell towers and WiFi hotspots around you.

“The iPhone is not logging your location.” it states, “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.”

Apple states that the creators of this technology, including Apple, have not made enough efforts to educate customers about location services and their uses. It goes on to explain that the iPhone uses this additional data to help you iPhone use location services when you’re out of range or reception of a GPS signal.

“Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes,” stated Apple, “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

The database of information about the location of these WiFi hotspot and cell tower locations is being gathered, Apple uses the term ‘crowd-sourced’, by the millions of iPhones now in use and then sent to Apple in anonymized and encrypted form.

This statement needs to be read carefully because it’s language is interesting. Note that Apple said above that the iPhone is not logging your location, just the towers and hotspots around you. Basically though, it is still logging a general map of your iPhone’s location but that data is then anonymized and sent to Apple.

This means that the information is not linked to you or your iPhone personally and becomes part of a large pool of data that Apple uses to aid in location services.

“[The database 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.”

Apple then states that the data that you’re seeing on your iPhone is not your iPhone’s location at all. “The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone,” says Apple, “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”

This is an important distinction and one that is central to the issue of privacy here. The location data that users are seeing on their iPhones is actually previously gathered data that has been downloaded to your iPhone, not gathered by your iPhone.

That data cache will continue to be stored on the iPhone but the same software update will limit it to just 7 days worth of cell tower and WiFi hotspot locations instead of the year’s worth it is doing now.

Apple also says that it plans to stop the backing up of this location data to your computer in a future software update.

We mentioned in our location services guide that the iPhone would continue to record location data locally and send it to Apple, even after you disabled Location Services on your iPhone. Apple says that this should disable the collection of the WiFi and cell tower data and that the current behavior is a bug, one that it will fix with a software update.

In a somewhat cryptic entry in the Q&A, Apple says that it is also collecting ‘anonymous traffic data’ that will help provide improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

The question of whether or not this collected data is being shared with third parties is also addressed.

“We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps.” Apple stated, “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).”

Apple then mentions the upcoming iOS software update that will contain the following fixes to improve the way that they handle this location cache.

  • 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.

They also mention that in the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone. Note that this seems to be a separate update and not part of this upcoming fix.

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