Apple Comes Clean on Location Services Controversy

Some days you just get lucky; today is one of those.

First, I'm excited because Apple has finally released the iPhone 4 in white, after a delay of only ten months. As I recall, one problem seemed to be matching the various shades of white that each parts supplier was using as a reference. In a way, the situation reminds me of these episodes of Absolutely Fabulous. (These may or may not be SFW; consider yourselves warned.)

First, from "New Best Friend":[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CdPrx1q_tLg&w=480&h=390]

Then, from "White Box":[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lfvGq97B7_U&w=480&h=390]

The second thing that's tickling me is that Apple has deigned to address the location tracking issue that surfaced last week. I'm glad to see that the company finally responded to the criticism - but only after it became apparent that Apple's executives were an eyelash away from being hauled before a committee of the U.S. Senate. Nevertheless, I'm not thrilled by the tone of Apple's statement.

For example, take this line: "Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their privacy and security has raised some very complex issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite." That may be true, but the last time I looked, Apple's PR department has a list of journalists who will be sympathetic to the company's professions of innocence. ("Sympathetic" is putting it mildly, of course; in the past, I have used "slobbering" to describe some of the stuff I've read from my peers in the press.)

Apple's PR folks also know how to find those journalists who look at the company skeptically, but seek to be fair-minded, Yours Truly falling in this group. If Apple wanted to build some bridges, it even could have reached out to those in the media who look at everything the company does as being diabolically inspired. In these three groups, there are hundreds of people who could have taken what is not a terribly complicated scenario and distilled it into a soundbite.

Here's how I'm reading Apple's statement: "The iPhone isn't logging users' locations, but instead is noting the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around those users, as a way of calculating location that's quicker than GPS. These locations are collected from all iOS devices, and a small subset of this data is cached on the device; any location data that an individual user's iPhone sends to Apple is anonymized and encrypted. Apple cannot identify an individual user from this data, but there appears to be a bug in the software that continues to collect this data in certain circumstances, even if Location Services is disabled. This bug will be fixed in a free update that will be available in a few weeks; this update will also limit the amount of location data that is cached on the device to a period of one week."

See, that wasn't so hard, was it?

As I said the other day, I'd like to see Apple give users more control over this cache of location data; some may want to disable this caching altogether, some may be fine with caching an hour's or a day's worth of data, and some may be fine with Apple's newly-defined limit of one week. But at least the company's admitting some fault, by noting that it, along with other implementers of location services, haven't done enough to educate the public about how these services actually work.

That's an ongoing problem with Apple. The company makes it incredibly difficult for independent observers (such as Yours Truly) to access developer-level resources that could shine some light on these problems. True journalists can't sign up for Apple's developer programs because of the required NDA, and the company refuses to provide in-depth technical briefings to the press, even during high-profile events such as WWDC.

Stonewalling the press only gets you so far; as Apple has shown over the last week, the longer one stalls, the bigger the problem becomes. Apple wants desperately to be trusted and loved, but as any philanderer will confirm, it's very hard to trust anyone who holds a track record of evasive statements and self-righteous justifications.