Today Apple released a Q&A about the location data that's stored on the iPhone. In the statement, the company says broadly that it does not track the iPhone's location, and that the data, which is currently stored in an unprotected file, will be encrypted in the next major update of iOS.
In the statement, Apple admits that iPhones send location data to Apple to maintain a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell phone towers, as many have suspected. However, the company says the locations recorded can be up to 100 miles away from the where the phone actually is, and that the data is sent anonymously.
Apple further explains that it's creating the database to provide better location services on the phone. By using the crowd-sourced locations of cell towers and hotspots, the phone can more quickly locate the user than if it were using GPS satellite data alone. Putting the entire database on every user's phone would be untenable, though, so an iPhone requesting location services accesses a subset, or cache, of the database. It's this data, not necessarily data specifically generated by the user, that's stored in the unencrypted file, "consolidated.db."
At the same time, though, the company effectively admits that retaining such a lengthy and comprehensive location record on the phoneever since the user upgraded to iOS 4, or about a year for most usersis unnecessary to maintain such a database. Also, backing the file up to a user's computer is clearly not needed either. Apple says it plans to do four things in the next major update of iOS:
- 1) Reduce the size of the file.
- 2) Stop backing up the file.
- 3) Delete the file entirely when location services are turned off.
- 4) Encrypt the file on the phone.
Apple is also specific about when it shares location data with third parties, saying it provides "anonymous crash logs" to developers to help them debug apps from users who have opted in to doing so. Apple's iAds advertising system can also use location to target ads, but Apple says it doesn't provide a user's location data unless the user explicitly approves it.
As for the question of whether the iPhone stores location data even when location services are turned off, as some have reported, the company said that this is a software bug that will also be fixed in the coming iOS update.
The issue of iPhone location tracking came to light last week when researchers described in detail how the device maintains a location database in an unencrypted file called "consolidated.db." The researchers showed how one could easily access the file from a backup and, with a Mac app, see the data points on a map. While imprecise, the data shows generally where the phone had been.
Although the issue first entered the public consciousness last week, others have known about the stored location data for some time, and PCMag found that it's been used as evidence by law enforcement for months. Washington lawmakers have gotten into the fray as well, and some have demanded that Apple explain itself. Many have questioned whether the issue is really that controversial in the first place.