Apple featured big in this week’s headlines. Firstly for its seemingly endless sales and profit performances and secondly for its ‘evil’ activities recording every iPhone’s location history in hidden file. Or course, the amount of evil actually being perpetrated depends on which news story you read.
If you happen to have missed all the hoo-hah, it centers around the discovery of a previously unnoted file present on iPhone and iPod devices that has been recording location and time-stamped data since the mid-2010 release of the iOS 4 software update. This effectively becomes a comprehensive log of all user movement and activities over a period of time. British researchers Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden reported the discovery at this week’s Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco.
Not only did they find this hidden ‘feature’ they also had the ‘audacity’ to release a program on the Internet that not only accesses the info on anyone’s iOS device but also cleverly displays its location data on a map for any date period. I could not resist the temptation but was concerned to find that not ALL my locations had been recorded! Could this be a bug in an Apple program? Heaven forbid!
It was, therefore, not surprising that attacks came from all quarters, and what a relief for Google now that Apple is attracting the attention of the conspiracy theorists! It’s not so much that the devices track location, that is a feature present on most smartphones these days, it is the issue that the user does not know of the file and that it is backed up by iTunes and transferred to a users new device, thereby ensuring its longevity, and potential access by unauthorized third parties.
Tracking the location of people using cell triangulation is a common practice, in fact, it is mandated in many jurisdictions for use by law enforcement agencies. Mobile operators even sell location information back to their own customers for child tracking, etc. as well as third parties looking for particular demographic groups.
The discoverers emphasized that there is no evidence that Apple itself has access to this data. However, the big stink for Apple is that they didn’t make the existence of the file public knowledge, or did they?
Those ever-vigilant (and sometimes anal) souls like myself, that bother to read all the Terms & Conditions confronting them will have noted that those on Apple’s iPhone Software License in Clause 4 (b):
“Location Data. Apple and its partners and licensees may provide certain services through your iPhone that rely upon location information. To provide and improve these services, where available, Apple and its partners and licensees may transmit, collect, maintain, process and use your location data, including the real-time geographic location of your iPhone, and location search queries. The location data and queries collected by Apple are collected in a form that does not personally identify you and may be used by Apple and its partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. By using any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple's and its partners' and licensees' transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data and queries to provide and improve such products and services.”
What can be said for the histrionics of US Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) shooting off a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs stating, "There are numerous ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors." Somebody should have told him that Mr Jobs is on leave just now and probably not reading letters from anybody. Rep. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) went further by saying, "I'm deeply disturbed by this report, I have been concerned that current law fails to ensure consumers are protected from privacy violations. Consumers are often left to learn of these breaches of privacy from hackers and security experts because companies fail to disclose what data they are collecting and for what purpose."
Strange coming from a government that probably amasses more personal data for security reasons than the rest of the world combined. The same one that uses scanning devices to look through people’s clothes at airports and probably knows what each of them had for breakfast this morning.
The point here is that personal data is being collected and used by multiple agencies and enterprises each day. Google now doubt tracks every search you make so that it can improve the algorithms over time. Amazon knows what other people like you also looked at and bought in its store. Mobile operators are providing the location data for connected devices, are they an accessory to any crime that Apple may be committing.
There is no defense for any invasion of privacy but it is such a common and prolific activity in this digital age it is probably too late to change anything. Information is definitely the currency of the era and it is being traded at all levels of enterprise and government. I think it's fair to this cat is well and truly out of the bag.