23 April
2011

In the last week there has been a large amount of publicity over the fact that the iPhone keeps a cache of location data. It's been pitched as a shocking revelation and has made the headlines in print media, radio and television. The event that triggered all the uproar was a presentation by Alasdair Allan from the University of Exeter where he mentioned that the iPhone keeps your location history in an internal file. This doesn't come as much of a surprise, and in fact it was the subject of a previously-published paper by Alex Levinson, Bill Stackpole and Daryl Johnson in 2007!. The right peole aren't even getting the credit for this non-story.

Since the iOS (Apple) devices, as well as Android smart phones all provide "location aware" services including location-sensitive Google searches, it is self-evident that location data must be collected. Was anybody actually foolish enough to think is isn't being stored, aggregated and used?

Among other things, the services that provide this location-aware search are not charities: the do it for money. Especially since they don't charge users for these services, they must be making money from the data. Oh, and location-based services aren't just Google search, they include mapping, and Facebook location sharing, and Four Square gaming, Gowalla, and many others. Oh, and just having your cell phone turned on -- any call phone, allows cell provides o collect such data (and there are good reasons to assume they already collect it). Thus, people's location data may be in all kinds of repositories.

The ability of the phone to determine its position from WiFi signals is based on the regular update of the correlation between WiFi signals and other kids of location data. I am not sure if this is done by Apple, Skyhook or some other service provide, but it's an important step in providing a service that many many people depend upon.

Apple is among the most up-front location based services: they even allow it to be disabled and applications that access location data need to seek permission. My Android phone is much more ambiguous about what is being collected, and how easily you can disable it.

I am not even going to try and weight the tradeoff here between privacy and utility, but the location file in the iPhone is definitely not a big shocker. Oh, and removing this file is trivial too, about the most trivial program anybody could write. It not a practical reality for most people since installing your own code on a phone, especially an iPhone, involves a whole lot of other technical issues. Now, the bigger issues are worth discussing, but this particular firestorm just makes the journalists involved seem like they have not even tried to do their homework.


By Gregory Dudek at | Read (1) or Leave a comment |    
Comments
Re: Misplaced hysteria over misunderstood privacy loss with the iPhone

Regarding cell carriers, this story is pretty interesting: http://flowingdata.com/2011/03/30/tell-all-telephone-reveals-politicians-life/

Posted by: todd. at April 24,2011 02:17
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