Researchers say your iPhone records everywhere you go

Apr 20, 2011

Here’s a story that has the capability to freak me right out: Researchers have discovered files on the iPhone and iPad 3G that show the devices keep track of everywhere their users take them, and save that data indefinitely.

It appears that the undocumented feature is a part of iOS 4, the latest big update to Apple’s mobile operating platform. The software constantly updates your location, whether you need it to for an app or service you’re using or not, according to a story in the UK paper The Guardian.

Okay, so this isn’t exactly new, at least not to everyone. Some more technically savvy iPhone owners have been aware that the iPhone aggressively stores location data for some time, but two UK researchers have now been able to visualize the data the iPhone stores, giving it a new presentation and showing just how powerful a privacy-breaking tool it can be.

The Guardian story suggests that anyone with the know-how who stole an iPhone could get a user’s data and discover their whereabouts for as far back as an entire year. That’s definitely a scary proposition. Here are a couple quotes from The Guardian’s story:

‘Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been,’ said Pete Warden, one of the researchers.

The researchers are also finding that Apple’s phones are the only ones on the market tracking such extensive location data, despite many other phones having the capability to do so. They’re currently searching through the programming code for Android phones, but are discovering no other such data storage.

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Warden and Alasdair Allen, the other researcher on the project, have created a website that answers users’ questions about the location data. On it, users can access an application that lets them access the data and actually see what’s stored there, visualized on a map. The researchers say all it takes is to “jailbreak,” or completely unlock, an iPhone, or get direct access to a user’s computer, in order to get access to the location data.

Smartphone security holes have been cropping up and getting a lot of attention lately, but this is the first time that data logging of this kind seems to be a purposeful action by Apple. The researchers say data logging continues even after you switch to a new phone or migrate a phone to a new computer — suggesting it isn’t something Apple can claim is accidental.

Now that this data has been identified and located on iPhones and iPads, new, big questions emerge: What is Apple saving all that data for, and what (if anything) is it doing with it? And further, if Apple addresses the concerns and purports to do away with this extra location-tracking, will it truly do so or just do a better job of hiding it?

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Phil Hornshaw

Phil Hornshaw is a freelance writer, editor and author living in Los Angeles, dividing his time between playing video games, playing video games on his cell phone, and writing about playing video games. He’s also the co-author of So You Created a Wormhole: The Time Traveler’s Guide to Time Travel, which attempts to mix time travel pop culture with some semblance of science, as well as tips on the appropriate means of riding dinosaurs. Check out his profile.

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