Apple Puts Mobile Location Data Controversy to Bed


appleADOTAS – It’s interesting that the same day the White House released President Barack Obama’s birth certificate in an attempt to stomp out the media-fueled “birther” controversy (as well as misdirect media attention from some agency-head musical chairs), Apple put to rest the frothing “Locationgate” scandal (hopefully I’ll never feel the need to type that phrase again), which seemed primarily a media exercise in brewing paranoia about smartphones tracking their users.

Of course, that was a logical extension from brewing paranoia about behavioral targeting in online advertising.

Researchers cited in The Guardian did not uncover a saved database of exact locations where an iPhone had been, but a database of cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots used to assist the device in speedily calculating location when a user requests it. This cache of hotspot and cell tower locations was backed up on iTunes during syncing.

Location 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,” the company said in a statement, adding that the company cannot identify specific sources of the data. Apple is using that aggregated data to build traffic maps for improving traffic service in the next few years.

Apple cites a bug for the year-long retention of the cache, which it is going to fix in an upcoming software update — the company added that such data shouldn’t be saved for more than a week. The data saved on the iPhone will also be encrypted in the future and will no longer be backed up during syncing.

With the release of the iPhone 4, Apple changed its mobile device privacy policy to include the language: “To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device.” Even when Location Services were turned off, Apple was still collecting location data (which it will cease to do with the new software update).

In an article last summer titled “Just What Does Apple Plan To Do With My Location Data?”, I wrote: “[W]hy won’t Apple just come out with some bullet points, a PowerPoint presentation (OK, maybe not PowerPoint) that details how long the location data will be stored, who exactly it will be shared with and the various ways it will be used[?]”

A year later, I say, thanks, Apple. That’s all I wanted to know.


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