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.
Google Needs to Follow Apples Example
The same is probably true about Android’s location cache. I’m pretty sure that Google keeps track of the location of vast numbers of cell sites and WiFi access points. The reason I’m sure is that when I turn on an Android device, it can pinpoint my location almost instantly, regardless of whether it’s in a position to have a view of GPS satellites or not.
Apparently one or more of the WiFi access points in my office is in Google’s database; when I turn on an Android device and as soon as it spots the AP, it knows the location. This is confirmed by the time I gave a relative one of my old APs, and for a month or so, her Android phone was convinced that she was in my office instead of nearly 200 miles away. Eventually Google apparently updated its database, and the location was correct.
While Apple is going to have to suffer through some questioning even though the company has done what it can to fix the problem while retaining the ability to use location-based services, there will be many people who see a vast conspiracy. The reality is that they should be looking at Google. The company has admitted that it tracked the location of WiFi access points while also gathering photos for its Street View feature in Google Maps.
So the more important question may be, what isGoogle doing with all of that location data? Is the company continuing to collect information from WiFi access points after it was forced to stop doing so with its Street View photo cars? The difference between Google and Apple is that Google is in the business of selling this location information in a variety of ways. One has to wonder if the access point in your living room is part of some great Google database that the company is selling to someone.
Chances are pretty good that it is, but protecting yourself is fairly easy. Even better, protecting yourself is something you should do anyway. Just turn on WPA encryption and the ID information of the access point is also encrypted. Google won’t be able to use it. It’s worth mentioning that this also means your neighbors and people on the street won’t be able to use your access to the Internet either, which is a good security practice.
I think it’s a point in Apple’s favor that the company fixed what was obviously becoming a public relations nightmare as quickly as it did. The issue of privacy in terms of location tracking is important, and while the company could have stalled and hoped the problem would go away, instead it stepped up to the plate and solved the problem.