Apple is facing hard questions about iOS 4's ability to track users. It's not the first time the company's faced location-based inquiries.
Apple is facing some serious
questions about how and why its mobile products collect users' location data.
But it's not the first time the company has dealt with interrogation by lawmakers over
its practices related to that sort of information.
On April 21, U.S. Rep.
Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) fired off letters to
Apple CEO Steve Jobs, asking for clarification on news that the iPhone and
3G-enabled iPad running iOS 4 have been saving location data to a hidden
Apple has not yet officially
responded, but it's not the first time the Cupertino, Calif.-based tech giant
has run smack into lawmakers' inquiries about its location data. In June 2010,
Edward Markey, along with U.S. Rep. Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) sent Apple a letter
demanding information on its practice of collecting, storing and sharing the
location of users' mobile devices.
The congressmen were
been revised to allow the sharing of location data with application
providers-if customers opted in to the providers' location services.
Apple responded at the time
that, while its mobile devices and Mac computers did collect location
information, they did so anonymously in batches, before encrypting and sending
it to Apple's
servers every 12 hours
In recent days, reports have
emerged suggesting that smartphones running Android have been transmitting
location data to Google. Security analyst Samy Kamkar, in research quoted in The
Wall Street Journal
April 22, suggested that the information uploaded by
Android devices was free of personal data.
The current focus on iOS 4
started after researchers Alasdair Allan wrote a long April 20 posting about
the mobile operating system's supposed location-sniffing abilities on the
O'Reilly Radar blog
. Working with co-researcher Pete Warden
released an open-source iPhone Tracker application that plots the consolidated
information on a map.
"The database of your
locations is stored on your iPhone as well as in any of the automatic backups
that are made when you sync it with iTunes," Allan wrote as part of a FAQ about
removing the data. "One thing that will help is choosing encrypted backups,
since that will prevent other users or programs on your machine from viewing
the data, but there will still be a copy on your device."
The location data saved by iOS
4 apparently contains information gleaned from cell towers and the names of
WiFi access points, and not actual data on the tablet or smartphone. In theory,
at least, anyone who manages to seize the user's iOS device and its syncing PC
will have access to the unlocked database file and roughly a year's worth of
consolidated location data.
As the week closed, news
reports emerged that law-enforcement
agencies have been using iPhone and iPad location data
for at least the
past year. Law and order aside, though, a least a few of the nation's
legislators have expressed reservations over Apple's policy.
"The existence of this
information stored in an unencrypted format raises serious privacy concerns,"
read Franken's April 21 letter to Jobs. "The researchers who uncovered this
file speculated that it generated location based on cell phone triangulation
technology. If that is indeed the case, the location available in this file is
likely accurate to 50 meters or less."
In turn, he wrote, that
raises the possibility of some very negative consequences: "It is also entirely
conceivable that malicious persons may create viruses to access this data from
customers' iPhones, iPads and desktop and laptop computers ... There are numerous
ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors."
Other popular online
services, including Twitter and Foursquare, also leverage location data.