It’s been a bad few days for privacy in the tech world. First, researchers in the U.S. discover that Apple’s iPhone and iPad 3G have been keeping extensive records on the whereabouts of their users, and then Sony’s 70 million+ member PlayStation Network was hacked, compromising sensitive user data. In both cases, folks are questioning the companies’ responses.
After several days of waiting, Apple has now provided their version of events. The company essentially denies any wrong-doing while acknowledging that some people might be more sensitive to having this data collected than others, so they are planning some changes to how this data collection works. Steve Jobs also provided Mobilized with an exclusive interview on the issue today where he reiterates these points.
How satisfied you are with their answers largely comes down to how much you trust Apple’s good intentions. If you believe – as I do – that there is no invasion of privacy involved in how the data is collected and used, Apple’s response will likely satisfy you and you can now move on with your day.
If on the other hand, you are suspicious of Apple’s motives, their Q&A might raise more questions than it answers. For instance, why were users not told that their iPhones were collecting anonymous and encrypted data about Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers and then sending that data back to Apple? And why were they not given the ability to opt-out? It seems to be standard practice in the software world to acquire a users permission before transmitting anonymous usage data back to a publisher (Microsoft and Google are just two examples) which makes it hard to believe that Apple simply forgot to include this step. You can see why they might not want to give the option – the data they receive, even in an anonymous and encrypted state is a virtual gold mine.
Time for you to decide…. below is the release in full. If you still have questions, throw them in the comments and we’ll do our best to get some answers, though Apple often refuses to comment on issues such as this beyond their official releases.
April 27, 2011
Apple Q&A on Location Data
Apple would like to respond to the questions we have recently received about the gathering and use of location information by our devices.
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.
2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
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. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.
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.
4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
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. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).
5. Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.
6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?
This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.
7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?
It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).
8. What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.
9. Does Apple currently provide any data collected from iPhones to third parties?
We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them).
10. Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important?
Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.
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.