Apple Hit With Another Location-Data Lawsuit

Apple finds itself the target of another location-data lawsuit, days after an executive appeared before Congress to discuss the company's location policies.

Apple is facing another lawsuit over location data, this time from a filing with the United States District Court for the District of Puerto Rico.

According to The Loop, the action filed by one Lymaris M. Rivera Diaz accuses Apple of transmitting users' location information to third-party advertisers. Charges include fraud, unfair trade practices and abuse. Other companies named in the lawsuit include Pandora Media, The Weather Channel and other defendants who could be named at some later point.

Whether or not the lawsuit itself has merit, Apple is certainly wrestling with some fallout related to how its mobile devices store and use-location data.

On May 10, Google and Apple officials defended their respective companies' privacy policies before a Senate panel, with both arguing that their policies are ultimately designed to protect user data. "Apple does not track users' locations," Guy "Bud" Tribble, Apple's vice president for software technology, argued in written testimony. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to do so."

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), chairman of the hearing, suggested the need for a balance between companies' need for location data to refine their products and consumers' desire to keep their movements largely private.

"No one up here wants to stop Apple or Google from doing what they do," he said. "What today is about is trying to find the balance between all the wonderful things [they do] and consumers' privacy."

Earlier in May, Apple issued a software update for mobile devices, iOS 4.3.3, designed to fix what it called a location-tracking "bug."

"This update contains changes to the iOS crowd-sourced location database cache," read an explanation posted on Apple's iTunes service. Those changes included a reduction in the size of the cache, a total deletion of the cache whenever Location Services are turned off and stopping the cache from backing up to iTunes. The update applied to iOS 4 devices on both the AT&T and Verizon networks.

Apple's controversy erupted after researcher Alasdair Allan wrote about iOS 4's supposed location-sniffing abilities in an April 20 posting on the O'Reilly Radar blog. Working with co-researcher Pete Warden, he released an open-source iPhone Tracker application that could plot stored location data 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 us 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."

Location data saved by iOS 4 apparently included information gleaned from cell towers and the names of WiFi access points, and not actual GPS data.

In an FAQ posted on its corporate Website, Apple sought to establish its position on location-logging, in an argument later echoed by Tribble before Congress.

"The iPhone is not logging your location," read one section. "Rather, it's maintaining a database of WiFi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than 100 miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested."