Apple Blames Software Bug for iPhone Location Data Storage
Apple officials say the company is not tracking iPhone and iPad users but has admitted that excessive amounts of device location data have been stored, due to a software glitch.
Apple has been under intense scrutiny from users, industry observers and lawmakers for more than a week following the discovery that its iPhones and iPads collect and store location data about the whereabouts of its devices.
"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone," Apple said in an April 27 statement. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."
Devices running its iOS 4 software have been keeping an unencrypted cache of the data since the release of the OS in June 2010, Apple said in the statement. The problem is a software bug the company has uncovered and a problem it plans to fix shortly.
"We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data," Apple explained.
What is the data and why is it being stored? According to Apple, each iPhone is maintaining a database of WiFi hotspots and cell towers in the user's location-though in some cases, these towers may be as far as a hundred miles away-so that location information, when requested, can be served up in a snap.
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 WiFi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just WiFi 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 WiFi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby WiFi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.
"Users are confused," Apple continued in its odd third-person tone, "partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date."
Researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden announced that Apple has been "maintaining a database" in an April 20 post on O'Reilly Radar. While unsure of why it was being done, the two confirmed it was "clearly intentional" and that the data collection persisted even across device migrations. Warden, in a video on the site, explained that since upgrading to iOS 4, he'd been through three iPhones, but the log of his whereabouts had been consistently maintained through that time.
"Anybody with access to this file knows where you've been over the last year, since iOS 4 was released," the pair wrote.
When users turn off Apple's Location Services feature, iPhones sometimes continue to update the database, Apple conceded, again blaming a software bug.
"It shouldn't," Apple said in the statement. "This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly."
Sometime in the next few weeks, Apple said it will release an iOS software update that will reduce the size of the database cache store on the iPhone, stop backing up this cache and delete the cache entirely when Location Services is turned off. Additionally, the next major release of iOS will encrypt the cache on the iPhone.
When some Apple customers were likewise upset following the release of the iPhone 4, which suffered a loss of antenna strength when held a certain way, Apple released a statement similarly distancing itself from the problem and expressing surprise.
"Upon investigation, we were stunned to find that the formula we use to calculate how many bars of signal strength to display is totally wrong," it said in a July 2, 2010 statement. "Our formula, in many instances, mistakenly displays 2 more bars than it should for a given signal strength."
In addition to its location data clarification, Apple also announced April 27 that the white iPhone 4 will finally arrive April 28, and that later this week the iPad 2 will beginning shipping to Japan, Hong Kong, Korea, Singapore and eight additional new countries.