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iPhone secretly tracks user location, say researchers

Gregg Keizer | April 20, 2011
iOS 4 logs up to 100 locations daily in unencrypted file on iPhone, iPad and syncing computers.

Warden and Allan have made it easy to do just that: They've created an application that extracts the data from a Mac, then displays the location history on a map.

It's unclear why iOS is collecting the data, but Warden and Allan speculated that it might have to do with a future feature that relies on location. "The fact that it's transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn't accidental," they said.

According to Warden and Allan, there's no sign that the data is being transmitted to Apple, or leaving the iPhone, iPad or synchronizing computers.

"Don't panic," they urged. "There [is no] evidence to suggest this data is leaving your custody."

That's little consolation, said both Miller and Cluley.

"I just don't see any upside to this," said Miller, pointing out that people will trade off privacy for some obvious benefit. "This doesn't make my life easier, or the iPhone any cooler," said Miller.

Cluley concurred, and added that the news will likely shock many iPhone owners. "Most users would not expect their iPhones to be doing this," said Cluley, "and they'd have a right to be upset."

But Cluley wasn't ready to put on a conspiracy cap.

"I think things tend not to be conspiracies, but are more often cock-ups, accidents that happen," Cluley said. "It may be that one hand of Apple doesn't know what the other hand is doing."

Warden and Allan have published an FAQ about their iPhone data location findings, and the Mac OS X application that displays a device's location history, on the GitHub development repository.

"Why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it -- or not -- are important questions that need to be explored," said Warden and Allen

Apple did not immediately reply to questions.

 

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