Call it what you will—a foofaraw, a kerfuffle, an uproar, a donnybrook, a, um, shawshank (that’s a thing, right?)—but the news that the iPhone is logging users’ locations has spread faster than a YouTube video of a cat playing the trombone. It’s on the mainstream news; U.S. politicians are penning letters to Apple; heck, I even overheard two elderly gentlemen and an older woman discussing it in the café I frequent.
Given all the excitement, I know what you’re thinking: should you totally panic that all your movements have been recorded? Or should you only panic maybe just a little bit—say, a smidge of panic? I mean, exactly how much duct tape and plastic sheeting should you be buying, really?
Allow me to go one better: don’t panic at all. Yes, the fact that Apple’s logging this location data is, if I may be so bold, deeply uncool. The company should absolutely clarify why the data’s there and explain what it’s going to change in the future to make sure that this information isn’t easily accessible. We’ve reached out to Apple, but the company has not to date returned our requests for comment.
But, that said, the end times are not nigh, the sky is not falling, Big Brother is not peering at you through your screen, and Sting is not personally watching every step you take. That’s not to say there aren’t concerns, but it’s worth it to pause a moment and understand what is—and isn’t—going on here.
Apple doesn’t have this information: While the information is being collected on your iOS device, there’s no indication from any source that the data is being sent from your iPhone and your Mac to anybody. Not to Apple, not to your wireless carrier, not to the government, not to your mom. It’s on your iPhone and your computer—that’s it.
The data precision is limited: The information being gathered seems to be the result of triangulating with cell towers (though, as I wrote in the original news story, there does seem to be some log of Wi-Fi location data as well). The precision of cell phone location is lower than that of GPS, so while it is generally accurate, it can often be off by a fair amount, especially in less densely populated areas. In other words, if you live out in a remote off-the-grid cabin because you’re worried about government agents following you, don’t sweat it.
It’s hard to get off your iPhone: iOS is pretty solid from a security perspective. Because the database is not owned by the iPhone user’s account, it’s not easily accessible from the phone itself. Apps don’t have access to the file either, and because Apple approves everything in the App Store, it’s not likely a third-party app could sneak in some malicious way to read it. There is now an app that allows you to wipe this data off your phone, but ironically you have to jailbreak your phone to do it—thus potentially making your phone vulnerable to inadvertently installing malicious applications.
True, if you lose your iPhone, then nefarious wrongdoers may be able to access this data by syncing the device with their own computer. If that concerns you, be sure to set a passcode on your phone and maybe set up the Find My iPhone service so you can remotely wipe it.
You can protect the data on your Mac: Your Mac is the far bigger target here. Because third-party apps aren’t vetted by Apple, and the file is easily accessible by your own user account, it’s possible you could be duped into running a program that accesses this data. But, by enabling encrypted backups of your iPhone in iTunes, you can make sure the data is protected from any potential snoopers; it’s also just a good idea if you’re the security-conscious sort. When your iPhone is plugged into your Mac, click on the device in iTunes’s sidebar, scroll down to the Options heading and click the checkbox next to Encrypt iPhone backup; you’ll be prompted to enter and verify a password.
As I said up top, it remains unclear exactly why the iPhone is gathering this information. If it’s for the location services system, why does it need such an extensive backlog? My database has information going back to June of 2010. Daring Fireball proprietor and Macworld contributor John Gruber suspects it may be a bug, that the data is supposed to be purged regularly. That seems likely, since if Apple were using it for some legitimate purpose—testing, for example—they’d need to be accessing it at some point and, again, there’s no indication that is the case.
Kudos, by the way, to the many folks—especially in the technology community—who’ve taken this development with reasonable aplomb and, in many cases, curiosity about retracing their steps. I’ve particularly enjoyed those who’ve posted their own location maps, or lamented that they never seem to go anywhere interesting. After all, this is the kind of info that can only really be used against you if it’s secret. In that sense, making it public is a stroke of genius.
While the location logging definitely veers towards the uncomfortable, I’m willing to chalk it up to an oversight by Apple—as long as the company moves quickly to address the issue. As the old saying goes, “never assume malice when you can assume incompetence.”
[Dan Moren is a senior associate editor at Macworld. He goes to many interesting places, which you could probably just find out by following him on Twitter.]