Location-Based Services and Privacy Violations by Apple iPhones and Google Androids

By on April 23, 2011

Imagine a room, a command center of sorts, illuminated by dozens of monitors in front of which nameless observers sit scrutinizing the data displayed before them. On the room walls are bigger displays; one showing the map of the country, some showing overhead views of several cities while others track the movements of selected individuals, identified only as numerics. On the door we see an emblem; not the crest of the Central Intelligence Agency or the National Security Agency… but an Apple.

This imagery is not from Tony Scott’s Enemy of the State, but rather it was what came to my mind when I read about the discovery made by two security researchers – Pete Warden, Founder of Data Science Toolkit and Alasdair Allan, Senior Research Fellow, University of Exeter, that the Apple’s iOS 4.x mobile operating system records the user’s location for iPhone and iPad into a hidden file on the devices, named “consolidated.db”.

Warden also created an open source program “iPhone Tracker” for iPhone and iPad users to output their location file into an interactive map, so they can see for themselves.  The software requires OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard).

It was also further revealed by The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) that Apple isn’t the only one; Google’s Android smartphones also regularly transmit their locations back to Google. According to WSJ, Google and Apple are gathering location information as part of their race to build massive databases capable of pinpointing people’s locations via their cellphones and these databases “could help them tap the US$2.9 billion market for location-based services—expected to rise to US$8.3 billion in 2014”.

Location-based services have been a feature included in most recent smartphones, supposedly as an accompaniment of the phones’ global positioning satellite (GPS) function and to help users look up local businesses nearby their location as well as to enhance social networking. But this new revelation about the hidden tracking abilities embedded in Apple’s and Google’s software raises significant privacy issues.

Following Warden’s and Allan’s findings above, US Congressman Ed Markey has taken Apple to task. The congressman wrote a letter to Apple CEO requesting more details about Apple tracking mechanisms. In a statement issued by him on Thursday:

Apple needs to safeguard the personal location information of its users to ensure that an iPhone doesn’t become an iTrack. 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.

Much of the concern about these hidden tracking abilities stem from the devices logging the users’ physical location without users knowing it, and the susceptibility of such unencrypted information to abuse by unscrupulous individuals like malicious hackers.

Earlier, Google has responded to Mobilized, All Things Digital:

All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.

So far, Apple has not responded. Hopefully, the most valuable company on Earth can comment on the tracker findings, as well as explain the measures they are taking to ensure that the information mined by these devices will stay secure and only be used for their originally intended purposes. This iPhone tracking fiasco, yet another side-defect of location-based social networking?

Watch Warden and Allan discussing their findings:

Addendum: It is ironically interesting to note that when Apple released the Macintosh in 1984, they created an advert in which an unnamed heroine (representing Apple Macintosh as indicated by her white tank top with a cubist picture of Apple’s Macintosh computer on it) saves humanity from “conformity” to Big Brother (representing IBM), an allusion to George Orwell’s famous novel 1984.

Credits for Images: The Guardian and Desktop Nexus






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