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Fuss Over iPhone Location Data a Tempest in a Teapot

- 2011.05.10 - Tip Jar

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Last week's big news in the high-tech office: Apple's iPhone and iPads (at least the 3G models) track users' locations.

Unfortunately, as is too often the case when the media try to report on technology, the headlines created more confusion than clarity.

Yes, it's true. Those Apple devices - along with smartphones running Google's competitive Android operating system - store a file logging locations (and times). The fear: Your boss could use this information to learn when you were at a hockey game rather than at work. Your spouse could find out when you were out with your other significant other.

Was "Locationgate" news? Not really. Apple released information on this a year ago, but no one paid it much attention at the time.

Is it a serious security concern? Again, not really. The information resides on your phone and on backups on your computer. Someone would need physical access to one of those systems to get the data - and the log file on the iPhone (etc.) is cryptic and hard to access.

How precise is the data? Not very. When I checked the location information stored by my iPad, it reported I'd taken it to Nanaimo. Except I hadn't. The closest I'd been was Bowen Island. At best, it showed that I'd visited a neighbourhood, not which stores I'd frequented.

(If you want to see where your iPhone or iPad thinks you've been and you sync to a Mac, download the iPhone Tracker utility created by O'Reilly researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden. No Windows version, sorry.)

Should you be worried? Not as far as I can tell. Without physical access to my device or my computer, the information - vague and unreliable as it is - isn't accessible to anyone. And if my iPad went missing, I would be more concerned about someone having access to my email and contacts, rather than knowing that I was in downtown Vancouver at lunchtime last Tuesday.

In fact, most smartphone users routinely give permission to share location information with a variety of apps. Those apps, in turn, share the information with advertisers, who pay to target users with location-specific ads. (According to the Wall Street Journal, the iPhone location data is collected even if "location services" has been disabled.)

If you're nervous about someone with access to your computer accessing the backup log file, you can - in iTunes when your iOS device is plugged in - choose the option to "encrypt iPhone Backup." You can also install Apple's free Find My iPhone app, so you remotely wipe your data if your device is lost or stolen.

My location is routinely tracked in lots of other ways. When I visit my rented storage locker, for instance, I enter a code when I drive in and out, and when I use the elevator. Have you used an ATM or a credit card lately? Or logged into your office's network? In each case, your location was stored in a database.

Apparently, the iPhone (etc.) location log file - which doesn't include accurate GPS data - is used by Apple and Google to fine-tune their abilities to (at least roughly) provide location information based on nearby cellphone transmission towers and WiFi routers. This information is then used on WiFi-only iPads and iPod touches, for instance, which lack GPS receivers, to provide rough location information.

There have also been reports that Apply may be using the location information to check on the strength of mobile phone signals, evaluating both its phone and its mobile providers' performance.

Apple's Steve Jobs has stated that Apple does not track users; data sent to Apple does not identify individual users.

So, iPhones, iPads, and Android smartphones and tablets keep a record of where they are - more or less. And they periodically "phone home" with that information. Should we treat this as a major invasion of privacy? Probably not. LEM

Update: Apple has already released iOS updates for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. See today's iNews Review for more information.

First published in Business in Vancouver May 10-16, 2011 issue #1124

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Alan Zisman is Mac-using teacher and technology writer based in Vancouver, BC, Canada. Many of his articles are available on his website, www.zisman.ca. If you find Alan's articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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