iPhone Location Tracking: Why Were Users The Last To Know?

The unsettling news that iPhones and iPads contain detailed records of every place their owners have gone has left many observers with more questions than answers.

The most pressing one is why consumers had to learn of this feature from security researchers rather than Apple. So far, Apple's silence on that matter has been deafening.

To recap, this week security researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden reported that all iPhones log users' locations to a "consolidated.db" file. "This contains latitude-longitude coordinates along with a timestamp," they wrote. "The coordinates aren't always exact, but they are pretty detailed... Our best guess is that the location is determined by cell-tower triangulation, and the timing of the recording is erratic, with a widely varying frequency of updates that may be triggered by traveling between cells or activity on the phone itself."

Since that report was unveiled on Wednesday at the Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., lawmakers and privacy advocates have voiced concern. "Anyone who finds a lost or stolen iPhone ... could easily download and map out a customer's precise movements for months at a time," Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) wrote to Apple. "There are numerous ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors."

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) also fired off a letter to Apple demanding answers to a host of questions, including whether the company ever notified users about the consolidated.db file.

Meantime, in the last two days it's become clear that some people -- namely law enforcement personnel and their affiliates -- have known for a while about the devices' location files. "I've analyzed so many iPhones I've lost track," Christopher Vance, a digital forensics specialist at Marshall University's Forensics Science Center, told the San Jose Mercury News.

Perhaps Apple had a good reason for designing its devices so that they store users' locations. But it's hard to come up with any justification for the company's decision to sell Phones and iPads to consumers without clearly informing them about the feature.

Tags: apple, mobile, privacy
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3 comments about "iPhone Location Tracking: Why Were Users The Last To Know? ".
  1. Bruce May from Bizperity , April 22, 2011 at 7:16 p.m.

    And I had just decided to buy an iPhone. Now I have to think abou it all over again.

  2. Penny Lacks from Lakeshore Media , April 22, 2011 at 10:56 p.m.

    What's so new about this - you can do this with any cell phone/smart phone.

  3. George Linzer from Potomac River Media , April 25, 2011 at 12:51 a.m.

    Sorry, I don't think this should come as a shock to anyone who is aware of the iPhone's location services in Settings or the Find My iPhone feature that is now made available free to all iPhone users (it was previously available only to MobileMe subscribers). Maybe the right question to be asking is, How far back does the .db go and how often is is it purged?