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.