Apple on Wednesday responded to concerns over the iPhone’s gathering of location data in the form of a lengthy Q&A document on its Website.
The brouhaha began one week ago, when The Guardian published a report stating that iPhones (and 3G iPads) gathered and stored location data that could theoretically be used to trace an iPhone user’s historical whereabouts. Congress was concerned; Macworld Senior Associate Editor Dan Moren wasn’t.
Apple, in its new Q&A document, states unequivocally: “Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.” The document continues: “Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”
The crux of Apple’s point is that the data being gathered isn’t where you’ve been, but rather the locations of wireless hotspots and cell towers across the country.
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested… These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.
Notably, Apple says that the geotagging data your iPhone generates and sends back to Apple cannot be used to identify or locate you; the information is both anonymous and encrypted. Furthermore, the company says that “the location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location… We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon.”
Apple says specifically that the cache’s storing of such an extensive history of your iPhone’s location is unnecessary and due to a bug, which the company plans to fix “shortly.” Specifically, Apple writes: “We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.” Apple also references an additional bug—namely, that the iPhone currently sends some of the geotagged data back to Apple even when you’ve turned Location Services off. That bug, too, should be fixed in a free iOS software update “in the coming weeks,” the company says. A further release, the next major iOS iteration will also encrypt the cache on the phone itself.
In a surprising move for the normally tightlipped company, Apple also states that it’s gathering one other bit of data for a future service:
Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.
In terms of sharing location data with third parties, Apple says that while location can be used by its mobile ad network, iAd, to target advertisements, location “is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves.”
In the document’s conclusion, Apple reaffirms its commitment to privacy, stating that “it will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.”