iPhone location tracking draws fire, shrugs

Editor’s Note: The following article is reprinted from CIO.com. Visit CIO’s Macs in the Enterprise page.

When word got out that your iPhone records your movements, privacy advocates and conspiracy theorists began wringing their hands. Others simply shrugged.

The thinking goes: Suspicious spouses, private investigators, and other nefarious third parties can commandeer your iPhone or iTunes-synced computer and discover your time-stamped whereabouts.

(It should be noted that wireless carriers have the exact same data but won’t give it up without a court order.)

Tech analyst Rob Enderle sees this latest Apple controversy as a serious privacy breach. “The issue isn’t that the phone is tracking users,” he says. “It’s that the user wasn’t told about this function, can’t opt out of it, and, worse, the file isn’t very secure.”

Now that Apple is a major player in the smartphone market, having surpassed Nokia as the world’s largest handset vendor after posting $11.9 billion in iPhone revenue for the quarter, Apple should be playing by more strict rules, Enderle says.

“They need to ensure their users aren’t put at unnecessary risk,” he says.

Enderle says sexual predators could possibly obtain the iPhone tracking information to find out when a child was vulnerable. Or thieves could uncover trends in order to rob homes when people are away. “The U.S. President has a fondness for Apple products, suggesting this exposure could apply to him or his family,” he says.

True to form, Apple has yet to respond to the iPhone tracking issue. But it’s a good bet the company will do something. Enderle expects Apple to secure the tracking information or ensure the data cannot be accessed without the approval of the user or guardian.

Not everyone, though, is convinced the privacy sky is falling. “I do not see it as a big issue because someone has to have the physical device in their position to access the data and the user has to have an open device with no password protection,” says Gartner analyst Van Baker. “While there is some risk associated with knowing high-level location data, the cellular triangulation is not that precise.”

Baker, though, is quick to point out that others at Gartner disagree with him. They believe iPhone tracking is a significant breach, he says.

Truth is, your iPhone already has a ton of private data on it: contacts, calendar, banking apps, credit card apps, personal text messages (just ask Tiger Woods), e-mails, chat sessions, pictures, videos, memos, journals, passwords, etc.

On a related note, a couple of years ago it came to light that if you’re arrested for, say, a traffic violation, the police have the right to search you. If you have an iPhone in your pocket, the police can search everything stored on it, too.

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