In an unusual announcement on May 5, Apple announced that it was issuing an update to iOS that will reduce the information kept in the location cache on iPhones and iPads and that it will eliminate the backup of the information when the device is synced with iTunes. The company also said that turning off location services will erase the cache.
In addition to issuing iOS 4.3.3, Apple also issued a candid discussion of what the location cache does, why Apple uses it, and what information is gathered. The Q&A said that the location information is actually from a crowd-sourced location database, and what it's storing are the locations of cell towers and WiFi access points.
This allows the device to tell you its location very quickly, and it has the advantage of working indoors, which GPS generally cannot. In the Q&A, Apple said that it never tracked the position of its users with iPhones or iPads, and that location data was used anonymously to build the database, subsets of which were provided to users for location services.
The company also said that the retention ofhuge quantities of location data was a bug, and the new version of iOS will reduce the retention time down to a week. The new version of iOS also prevents the iPhone or iPad from gathering location information when location services are turned off.
Apple's announcement is good, if not unexpected, news. It was hard to imagine what use Apple might have for a year's worth of location data stored on a phone and it was harder to imagine what might be done with it on a computer. The location database that Apple keeps, as long as it's anonymous, provides a convenience for users, and of course it allows targeted information that may be advertising or simply a note that the next burger joint is two blocks ahead.
I should also add that I was having trouble imagining why Apple might have wanted to know the location of every iPhone in real time. It seemed that the quantity of data involved would overwhelm any tracking or analysis the company might be doing. It was hard to see what conceivable benefit thecompany would gain from having this information.