Apple Tracking likely a “Bug” or Oversight

The database of all our movements being kept on our iPhones by Apple is likely a software bug or oversight, according to John Gruber. The positions recorded are not exact, unlike GPS, and the towers are probably triangulating the position of the phone so that it can work wherever it is. But whoever wrote the program for collecting the vague position data did not write a program erasing it from the phone afterwards. Or a software bug interfered with the erasure. And, nobody seems to have been monitoring the growth of these large databases on our phones at Apple.

I love my iPhone, and I admire Apple as a well-run and innovative company that exemplifies the best of what we can hope for in a post-industrial America (their environmental record is also rapidly improving). But they need to repair this problem, quickly. (Truth in advertising: I own a small amount of Apple stock.)

The discovery of the consolidated.db file on iPhones came as a shock to many consumers, and raised suspicions that Apple was secretly tracking its customers. There is no evidence, however, that the data was stored anywhere but on our own phones and in the back-up files on our computers. The argument that this was a software glitch seems convincing.

Apple has a responsibility to fix this problem now, not in the next operating system upgrade. In the meantime, iPhone and iPad users should click the box making back-ups encrypted, and they should use security on the iPhones so that their data is not compromised if the phone were lost or stolen.

Among the more disturbing implications of this glitch is that the tracking could expose some consumers to potential legal action. Even if the record of the consumer’s exact position is inexact, the consolidated.db file could be subpoenaed or hacked into by outsiders.

At a time when police and federal authorities are already seeking ways of tracking us through GPS without a warrant, it is unfortunate of Apple to pile on even inadvertently to the collapse of Fourth Amendment protections, a collapse to which the Bush administration contributed in its termite-like way.

Corporations have an absolute responsibility to consumers not to expose their private lives and private data, even potentially, to the prying eyes of outsiders. Apple must move quickly to fix this thing.

20 Responses

  1. Oh, that’s how it is.

    this ‘data’ related to the phone is described as in WHAT WAY RELATED TO THE PHONE?

    But clearly this national.

  2. The fact that this location database was explicitly backed up to the user’s computer, and explicitly migrated to any new device that the user might upgrade to, says that this was no software bug or work file inadvertently left lying around. Apple clearly intended for this location log to follow the user, from device to device, perhaps for a very long time.

  3. I think the file name is pretty indicative that it was intentionally a consolidated file of locations. If it were a glitch, you’d have a seperate file for every time the phone saved your location.

    More likely, this was something Apple agreed to include at the request of Homeland Security. They probably got an offer they couldn’t refuse.

  4. 1996 Telecom Act required all phone manufactures to have this tech. they can also turn the thing on and hide the fact its on while they listen. They? All telecom is routed thru NSA Fusion Centers, ALL

  5. “There is no evidence, however, that the data was stored anywhere but on our own phones and in the back-up files on our computers.”

    The data is also stored on telephone company computers; this is just a copy of that data. It is easily available to law enforcement agencies and, likely enough, without too much effort to criminals.

    Having a copy of the data on the iPhone creates additional risk to the user, especially for opportunistic abuse, but the data is already being centrally logged.

    • The press is saying that the consolidated.db file is *not* being stored on telephone company computers.

      • It would be nice if someone truly knowledgeable would comment on the software used in telecommunications equipment, and if it is true that every data packet has a unique identifier that can theoretically be saved forever.

  6. All Internet-connected mobile devices have contact lists, that’s one of their main purposes. Also, devices with GPS navigation have a list of destinations.

    GPS location logs are huge and hard to transfer, but these contact lists are relatively small and easy to compromise.

    Law enforcement aside, this info is a coveted target for marketing firms and all kinds of spammers, scammers, phishers, etc.

    On individual level, it is a good idea to limit proliferation of contact info between one’s gadgets and storage devices as strictly as possible.

    Of course, this is not enough, certain regulation is necessary. But here we are in a political quagmire – GOP libertarians are against BOTH spying on the citizens and any Government regulation that would prevent this spying!

    As for Obamadems, in the end, they simply follow the GOP line whatever it is.

  7. Gruber’s role is a noble villager in the Apple ecosystem, so, like the Beltway media, he is known for being a reliable conduit for whatever spin Apple wants to leak.

  8. i heard an analyst speculate that data collected about location tracking – apple could sell to marketers.

    i doubt it’s coincidental if profit is involved.

  9. CNET is reporting today that this systematic tracking is already well known in law enforcement and multiple products are openly marketed for extracting the info. This isn’t about Apple; this is about developing the critical thinking to recognize that our beloved new technology has _at least_ as much totalitarian potential as it does the potential to liberate.

  10. I will give Apple no benefit of the doubt on this one.

    Corporations think they own the public, and buy and sell our private info with impunity. I hate them all for this. Which is why I feed them misinformation at every opportunity.

  11. Of course, it’s a bug. Because we all know that companies never ever do this kind of thing. Also, there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Also, war is peace. Also, freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength. Also, I’m a left-wing intellectual and if NATO needs me, I’m there. Always.

    • And I’m right there with you researching better ways to hide my tracks. Please share any good resources you have. =b

  12. Juan:

    I also love my iPhone and have been an Apple fan from jump, however…we cannot seriously believe that Apple did not know exactly what it was doing here – this was no accident, glitch, blip or oversight:

    “Apple Inc.’s iPhones and Google Inc.’s Android smartphones regularly transmit their locations back to Apple and Google”

    See WSJ: link to online.wsj.com

    The data goes back to Apple’s servers. This about privacy, surveillance, marketing, profiling and making money off data gathered from unsuspecting customers. It needs to stop, and stop now.

    • “Apple says it has never tracked the locations of iPhones and iPads, but admits a software fault means data is still sent to the company”

      Oooops!!

      Now I respect Jobs as a creator and as a businessman. However, I find it hard to believe that code that 1) creates a database on a phone; 2) synchs that database with a computer; and 3) transmits that data to a third party server is a glitch.

  13. The press is saying that the consolidated.db file is *not* being stored on telephone company computers. There is no evidence, however, that the data was stored anywhere but on our own phones and in the back-up files on our computers.

  14. If you think Apple are innovative it is only because their perceived obsolescence has a strangle hold on you.

  15. In case you hadn’t seen it already, Apple is saying it’s not an accident or bug: “To provide the high quality products and services that its customers demand, Apple must have access to the comprehensive location-based information”

    link to ibtimes.com

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