Apple Says They are Not Tracking You in Official Response

Apple officially responded to the GPS tracking mess which received a lot of attention this week by saying they are not guilty and they will quit. Officially they say they are not tracking you in the Q&A posted on their press site. But since people are being creeped out they will quit.

The first question asks and answers as follows:

Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

This begs the question, “Why does everyone think you are Apple?”  Their answer according to Apple is essentially that tech reporters don’t understand and are not giving you all the facts. That may be true in some cases. But the reality is that there is an issue, and they are admitting it. A person’s location is logged and stored based on how close they are to Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers. Apple says this is a “crowd-sourced database” of these hotspots and cell towers that helps them calculate your location for the purpose of tracking you. This is beneficial for GPS and mapping apps like the built-in Maps app which offers location-based services such as directions for searching the immediate area for things like restaurants or movie theaters. Apple stores a subset of their database on your phone. They are collecting the information to create an accurate database of Wi-Fi hotspots around the country, presumably to offer a kind of GPS tracking service to Wi-Fi only devices like the iPad or iPod Touch. For example, when I use my wife’s Wi-Fi only iPad we can get pretty accurate mapping information in the Google Maps app on the iPad even though it does not have a built-in GPS. Sumocat is right – we are spying for Apple and so are Android users spying for Google.

iPhone Tracking

Apple said:

This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).

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In other words the information that has been used to “track” users leading to this controversy is actually tracking the hotspots and cell towers. Apple will no longer save the data to your computer when you sync your phone. Soon iOS will be updated to fix this issue. In the meantime you will just have to deal with it or just not sync your iPhone or iPad.

Apple says don’t worry about the information being sent back to Apple in order to track you. It is not user specific. The information is sent back “in an anonymous and encrypted form” so that they know a phone was near a certain tower, but not your phone. Soon less of this information will be stored so even if you are worried about it, Apple says it will be fixed. Below is the question and answer about the root of this controversy:

6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?
This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly … We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.

In other words, Apple has seen the light and realizes that it is a little creepy to store a year’s worth of data. They will now only store one week’s worth. If you were feeling like big brother was spying on you, then don’t worry because he is going to stop. At least he’s going to stop backing it up and storing a year’s worth of the information. He will still store a week’s worth and you will have to trust him that he’s not tracking you specifically.

It is ironic that Apple is being accused of being the big brother. Back in 1984 the company famously called IBM the Orwellian Big Brother of the novel 1984 during the iconic Super Bowl ad. That ad helped put Apple on the map over against IBM. How the tables have turned.

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Comments

  1. Anonymous says

    I’m still struggling a bit with some of the nuances here.

    My reading of the Apple statement is that there are two things going on.

    1) They are using iPhone owners to crowdsource the locations of wifi and cell towers.
    2) The are downloading part of this database to my phone to allow the phone to locate me quicker if it needs to.

    I don’t understand if the data in my consolidated.db is either of those things, or both?

    I think it’s probably the second. The statement says:

    “4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
    The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).”

    I assume the ‘appropriate subset’ is what goes into consolidated.db. Presumably there is a need to ‘phone home’ my position first, so that Apple can decide which part is appropriate to download. If Apple keeps logs of those requests for data then they are, in fact, tracking me.

    Dave

  2. Skyjumpr says

    Apple releases a statement which says they’re not tracking you, and adds “by the way you’ve been spending too much time at the local mall”. :)

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