Apple Explains iPhone Location Tracking, Vows to Fix Software
With Congress investigating and lawsuits flying, Apple offered a carefully worded statement promising to change its ways. Sort of. Dan Lyons reports.
Apple’s statements came in the form of a Q&A published on its website.
Apple’s response boils down to this: we’re not doing anything wrong, but we are going to fix some mistakes.
“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so,” the statement reads.
Apple’s phones do, however, keep a log of location data, the company said. And because of a software “bug” (cough, cough) its devices have been storing more data than necessary, the company said. That will be fixed in an upcoming version of the software that runs the devices, Apple said. Also, Apple will start encrypting the data stored on the phone.
The answer appears not to be enough to satisfy Sen. Al Franken, who is holding a hearing about mobile phones and privacy on May 10. “I still have questions about what exactly happened here and why Apple didn’t tell users about what it was doing,” he said in a statement.
Apple’s answer in some ways is too cute by half. For example, Apple said it is not tracking the location of users or iPhones—rather it is tracking cell-phone towers and WiFi hotspots “around your current location, some of which may be more than 100 miles away from your iPhone.”
See? Not tracking you—just the cell phone towers and WiFi hotspots near you. Get the difference?
Apple said using cell-tower and WiFi-hotspot data lets the phone calculate your location faster than using satellite GPS data.
Buried in the statement is an admission that Apple has been sharing user location data with advertisers.
Apple also said it’s gathering data that gets sent back from “tens of millions of iPhones” to Apple. This “crowd-sourced” data is “anonymous and encrypted,” Apple said.
Perhaps most intriguing was the revelation, buried in the middle of the second-to-last paragraph of Apple’s statement, that Apple has been sharing user location data with advertisers.
“Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads,” Apple said, while adding that this happens only if users approve giving their location to the advertiser.
Apple also said it has been gathering anonymous traffic data “with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.”
That service might compete with what Google offers in Google Maps.
The fuss over iPhones and privacy began last week when two researchers published a report saying they’d found a hidden database kept inside Apple devices. The database contained user location data going back as far as a year, the researchers said.
Soon after that report, another emerged saying that Google has been gathering user location data from phones based on its Android mobile operating system.
Google addressed this in a statement, saying, “Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”
Since then have come reports that Microsoft also has been tracking user location data from phones running its Windows Phone 7 operating system.
The revelations about Apple and Google have prompted Sen. Al Franken to schedule a hearing on mobile phones and privacy for May 10 in Washington.
Franken said on Wednesday that he still hopes Apple and Google will attend his hearing. “I’m eager to hear more from both Apple and Google on these issues,” he said. “I’m happy that Apple has answered some of the questions that I raised, and I’m glad they’ve acknowledged they need to take steps to address these problems.”
Franken said the fuss over mobile phones and location data “has raised larger questions of how the locations of mobile devices are tracked and shared by companies like Apple and Google, and whether federal laws provide adequate protection as technology has advanced.”
Dan Lyons is technology editor at Newsweek and the creator of Fake Steve Jobs, the persona behind the notorious tech blog, The Secret Diary of Steve Jobs. Before joining Newsweek, Lyons spent 10 years at Forbes.