Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Apple's Wordplay Regarding iPhone Data

Apple has gone on the offensive regarding recent news about location tracking data being found on iPhone devices. Apple's website contains a "Q&A" regarding the issue. The Q&A begins as follows:

1. Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Or, "all of you are bozos." In question 2, Apple goes on to say

Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite.

Note the word "accurate." We'll come back to that in a minute. First, however, I'd like to reprint Apple's answer to question 3 in its entirety.

3. Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. 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, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. 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 (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that 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.

So, to repeat, "the iPhone is not logging your location." It is instead providing iPhone users "with fast and accurate location information."

Or, it's not logging your precise location - just areas around your precise location (and areas around the precise locations of others that happen to be near your precise location).

Whew, that's a relief.

And while the information is sent in encrypted form, Apple admits in question 4 that it is not stored in encrypted form.

The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes.

And question 4 again reiterates that this is not the location of the iPhone, but locations around the iPhone and other iPhones in the same area, some of which could be 100 miles away.

So because there is nothing to worry about, there's no need to modify the iPhone, right? Uh...

Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

* 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.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

So I guess that means that Apple won't be sharing the contents of Tim Cook's cache. Unless, of course, Donald Trump demands it.

I'm waiting for reaction from Pete Warden. Warden is co-author of the iPhone Tracker that started the discussion.
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