Ever get the feeling that someone is watching you?
With GPS now standard in about 60% of mobile devices, it’s no surprise that “Big Brother” can easily track your location if necessary. After all, network providers and phone manufacturers like Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Apple (Nasdaq: AAPL) have collected “geo-data” for years.
And despite the fears from conspiracy theorists, there’s no doubt that much of this information is used for good, rather than evil. As The Wall Street Journal says, it “helps provide useful services like local-business lookups and social-networking features.”
For me, the benefits outweigh the concerns. For example, I’m always using my phone’s GPS to get out of traffic. And if my phone is ever lost or stolen, I can hop onto a computer and pinpoint its location in seconds.
Plus, most applications ask you to specifically approve location-based features, so you know when you’re giving permission for an application to track your position.
But in news that has fired up privacy advocates, researchers have just discovered an alarming glitch in Apple’s iPhone software.
Do You Remember Everywhere You’ve Been This Year? Apple Does…
While you’re bouncing around town with your iPhone or iPad, Apple is keeping track of your location data in a special file within the device.
Who has this data? Apple claims to be the sole viewer of this information… but that didn’t stop developers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, from finding a super easy way in.
In fact, with its iPhone Tracker app, anyone with access to your computer or iPhone can generate a detailed map of all your travels. Needless to say, you don’t want an identity thief to collect that information.
So how do you stop it?
Unfortunately, you can’t. As Allan and Warden say, “As far as we can tell, the location is determined by triangulating against the nearest cellphone towers. This isn’t as accurate as GPS, but presumably takes less power.”
And since the data isn’t compiled using your GPS, Ars Technica says that, “Users don’t get to decide whether their locations are tracked via cell towers or not… Unlike GPS, there is no setting that lets users turn it off, there’s no explicit consent every time it happens and there’s no way to block the logging.”
Understandably, this news has some iPhone users fired up. As one Princeton University Center for Information Technology Policy researcher puts it, “Apple has some explaining to do.”
But is this just an Apple problem?
Google Doesn’t Care Where You Are… So Why Does Apple?
Researchers point out that a similar file also exists in Google’s Android phones. However, it differs from Apple’s in three main ways:
- The owner retains complete control. Google issued a brief statement, which said, “All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user.”
- The tracking file isn’t available on all Android phones. According to Google, “Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.” (It’s worth noting, though, that those who root (i.e. hack) their phones, or allow the phone to download apps from unknown sources could make their devices vulnerable to a potential threat.)
- One of the developers counted only 50 geo-data entries on his Android phone. But his iPhone logged upwards of 13,000 entries. In other words, Apple keeps a much more complete record of your travels.
According to TNW, Apple “has far more data than it’s supposed to have in its database… Why that system doesn’t behave the way that the Android location recording system does and simply dump out older entries is a mystery at this point.”
A mystery that Apple had better solve fast.
How to Protect Your Privacy Until Apple Fixes the Glitch
Experts note that the file’s current location on the iPhone indicates that it’s probably not some dark conspiracy from Apple. And I’m certainly not saying it is.
However, location entries date back to the release of iOS 4 in June 2010, which has many wondering exactly why. I mean, I don’t think iPhone users would be happy if their location information somehow got into the hands of a thief or stalker.
The news has got the government’s attention, too. Congressman Edward Markey contacted the company to “better understand Apple’s data collection to make certain that sensitive information can’t be left behind for others to follow.”
I bet Apple is already scrambling to fix the security flaw. Until then, if you own an iPhone or iPad, it wouldn’t hurt to encrypt the files you’re syncing to your computer. Just follow these steps…
- Connect your device to your computer, enter iTunes and select your device from the menu.
- In the Options menu, click “Encrypt iPhone/iPad backup.”
- Set a password.
Keep in mind, this won’t stop the device from logging your location, but it will make it harder for any Joe Shmoe to gain access to your information.