The controversy surrounding the security of Apple’s iPhone and iPad escalated Thursday as some European governments said they would investigate whether the company had violated privacy laws by collecting and storing users’ geographic location data, reports “The New York Times” (http://macte.ch/a2ggl).
At the same time, some researchers said that contrary to reports published Wednesday, the iPhone’s recording of location information in a hidden file on the device, later stored on iTunes on a PC, has been known for some time, and that the information has, on some occasions, been used by law enforcement agencies in investigations, the article adds.
“This data that was supposedly discovered yesterday has existed in earlier iPhones,” Alex Levinson of Katana Forensics, a company that specializes in extracting data from electronic devices for legal cases, told “The Times.” He said that he and colleagues had explained Apple’s practices at conferences and in research papers, and that his firm has helped law enforcement agencies “harvest geolocational evidence from iOS devices,.
Levinson added that he and other security experts said they suspected that Apple had been using the data to be able to pinpoint a phone’s location more quickly, saving bandwidth and battery life, when their owners used location-based services like maps and navigation. Whatever the reason, Apple hasn’t responded to the controversy.
However, in a letter sent by Apple in July to two congressmen — Edward J. Markey, Democrat of Massachusetts, and Joe L. Barton, Republican of Texas — the company appeared to confirm that it has been storing and collecting location information for some time, says “The Times.”
In the letter, Apple said it collects the location data anonymously and only when consumers agree to use its location-based services like maps, or any apps that ask a user’s location, and for its advertising system, iAds. The company said that it has been offering location-based services since 2008, but that only in 2010, when it released iOS 3.2, did it begin relying on its own databases for those services.
Markey sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs querying him about Apple’s data collection, storage and disclosure practices. “Apple needs to safeguard the personal location information of its users to ensure that an iPhone doesn’t become an iTrack,” said Markey. “Collecting, storing and disclosing a consumer’s location for commercial purposes without their express permission is unacceptable and would violate current law. That’s why I am requesting responses to these questions to better understand Apple’s data collection and storage policies to make certain sensitive information can’t be left behind for others to follow.”
The questions he wants answered are:
° Is it accurate that Apple iPhone keeps track of where iPhone users go, saving this information to a file on the device that is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronized?
° Did Apple intentionally develop this functionality in order to log the locations of users?
° How does Apple collect this customer location information?
° Does Apple use this information for any purpose?
° Has Apple used this location information for any commercial purpose?
° Is it possible for customers to disable this feature?
° Given the widespread usage of iPhones and iPads by individuals under the age of 18, is Apple concerned that the wide array of precise location data logged by these devices can be used to track minors, exposing them to potential harm?
“The Boston Herald” (http://macte.ch/cW34y) points out that researchers emphasize that there’s no evidence that Apple itself has access to this data. The data apparently stays on the device itself, and computers the data is backed up to.
Tracking is a normal part of owning a cellphone. What’s done with that data, though, is where the controversy lies, notes the “Herald.” A central question in this controversy is whether a smartphone should act merely as a conduit of location data to service providers and approved applications — or as a more active participant by storing the data itself, to make location-based applications run more smoothly or help better target mobile ads or any number of other uses, the article adds.
— Dennis Sellers