Don’t Freak Out About iPhone Tracking. Yet. | Wifi Walker, J B Chaparal Properties

Don’t Freak Out About iPhone Tracking. Yet.

Some stories are almost too bad to be true. Is Apple really using its millions of iPhones and iPads to track its consumers users every move? Probably not, but they could. What seems certain is that there is a file on your iPhone right now that has a record of everywhere you have been in the last six months. This is, certainly, discouraging and somewhat creepy news. It is also a huge mistake on Apple’s part, but as long as Apple fixes this soon there is no reason to freak out.

So what’s the deal? A couple of clever blokes, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, were poking around the iPhone‘s backup files and found a directory mysteriously called “Location D,” which contained an SQL database of latitudes, longitudes, cell phone towers, and time stamps. It didn’t take long before they realized this was a track of their—or at least’s the phone’s—location. Not only could this data be pulled off the phone, but it was also being moved to their PC every time they backed up their phone.

So that is scary. Although the two made it a fair bit scarier by building an app that can access this database and plot your previous locations on a map like a poor man’s version of a CIA tracking satellite. That really drives the point home. Apple may not be actively tracking you, but it did turn your phone into a tracking device without telling you.

Keep in mind this location information is based on cell tower and WiFi network triangulation, not the GPS chip in your phone. That means it isn’t that accurate, and locations could be miles off base. Even so, if you are planning a weekend trip to Miami and calling in sick on Monday, think again.

To be fair, collecting this data isn’t really the problem. Your cell phone carrier has similar data on your location; they need it to deliver service to you. And no doubt, it keeps a history of these locations going back for a while in order to monitor their network topology. The thing is to get this data from a carrier, you would need a court order. At the moment, anyone can access the location data on your iPhone as long as they have access to your phone or your computer.

What can you do? First thing you can do is encrypt your backups. That will protect the data on your PC. Second, don’t lose your phone. Because right now all of the data is still on your phone. It is also a good idea to password protect your phone. Although to be clear, there is no evidence that the data ever leaves the phone—other than for backups—or that it has been used for nefarious purposes.

Personally, I think people take their location a little too seriously. It is no secret that I spend my days at PCMag’s New York offices at 28 East 28th Street. I spend most nights in my apartment on Wayne Street in Jersey City. In between, I go other places. When I do, many times I check in via Foursquare and sometimes even share it on Twitter. I just don’t frequent that many secret locations these days, so I don’t mind telling people where I am. The thing is, I control that information flow. Likewise, consumers need to know when there is a database of their past locations on their phone. And until today, no one knew but Apple.

Clearly, Apple has some explaining to do. Why are they capturing this data? Why don’t they encrypt it by default? And how did they think that no one would notice? In the meantime, kudos to Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan for bringing this to light.

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