Kerry Biechman / April 27, 2011

Apple’s Response to iTracking

cc licensed flickr photo credit: owaief89

By now you’ve probably at least heard about the latest in scandals at the intersection of technology and privacy rights. Yes, it’s true – Apple does in fact have the capability of tracking your location via the iPhone and/or iPad. As blogger Jason Perlow of Tech Broiler points out, is this really that much of a shock? In order for GPS devices to function as needed, your location must be revealed. The sticky part is where and how long companies are allowed to store this information – if at all. Herein lies the controversy. During a session at the Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, CA last week, programmers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden revealed that Apple not only has this capability but they have also been storing the data on your device.  Allan and Warden presented on the ways in which Apple has been collecting the data, where it’s being stored and the lack of protection over the information, all items that have had i-fanatics in a panic. It seemed fairly clear that Apple had broken the rules and the media wasted no time making implications about what this all means and who would be caught next. DailyTech covered many of the details and rumors including the very real lawsuit filed against Apple just two days following the announcement. The post also addresses the concern that, much like many other issues of this nature, Apple is not the only company at fault. It’s apparently widely known that Google tracks users of its Android system but avoids the same scrutiny by deleting the information soon after collecting it.

Although Steve Jobs made a brief statement denying Apple’s tracking faux pas at the beginning of the week, the company followed up this morning with a more comprehensive question and answer session about what exactly the iPhone and iPad track as well as what they’re doing to rectify the situation. Apple explained that cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots are used to mark your location as opposed to your exact latitude and longitude, in order to allow GPS and other location driven apps to function properly. They made no effort to hide the fact that information is indeed stored on your iPhone and not encrypted but that this would soon be changing. Furthermore, any information that leaves your phone, whether it is being forwarded to Apple or downloaded to iTunes, as it is anytime you backup, the information is encrypted (assuming you have the appropriate on your iTunes account). Perhaps the most important part of the official response from Apple was their list of software updates to include a reduction in the size of the database stored on the iPhone, discontinuation of database transfer upon backup, and the addition of encryption.  To read more of Apple’s answers you can take a look at the full list of responses posted by Business Insider here.

While Apple did a nice job answering the tough questions, it remains to be seen whether their honesty after the fact will impact the lawsuit before them. Nothing included in the official response speaks directly to the complaint filed but their continuous reference to opt-in apps that would necessitate location tracking, implies that Apple does not believe they have violated federal law. It could be months or even years before we get an answer to that question but we’re sure there will be many more revelations in the coming weeks.

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