According to The Age, the biggest threat to your privacy isn’t Big Brother, or some shadowy government organisation, but the mobile phone in your pocket.
Security researchers have discovered that Apple’s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail to a secret file on the device which is copied to the owner’s computer when synchronised.
The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded co-ordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program…
Only the iPhone records the user’s location in this way, say Mr Warden and Alasdair Allan, the data scientists who discovered the file and are presenting their findings at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco on Wednesday. “We haven’t come across any instances of other phone manufacturers doing this,” Warden said.
This shouldn’t be surprising, the collection of location data is mentioned deep within the lengthy Terms of Service for iTunes.
“Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used … to improve location-based products and services.”
Regardless, this will come as quite a shock to many iPhone users. For those of you out there concerned about the kind of information your phone is gathering about your movements, you can download and run the App tracker program created by Pete Warden, available here.
The file the iPhone stores appears to be associated with Apple’s “Location Services. Apple’s own FAQ describes location services as:
Location Services uses a combination of cellular, Wi-Fi, and GPS to determine your location. If you’re not within a clear line of sight to GPS satellites, iPhone can determine your location using Wi-Fi3. If you’re not in range of any Wi-Fi, iPhone can determine your location using cellular towers.
Despite the claims in The Age article, it appears that Android phones have a similar service and store a similar file. According to this article:
An Android enthusiast wrote a “dumper” that pulls location information from the Android location provider. The file is called cache.cell and cache.wifi.
The data is unencrypted. Unlike the situation with iPhones, however, the data remains on the phone, and to access it one needs access to the operating system itself, known as “root access.” On the iPhone, the location data was copied from the phone to a PC every time it was synced with iTunes. It was copying the data to the PC that creates a potential security problem.
Neither Apple nor Google have made any statements as to why they need to keep this data. Researchers suggest the data is cached to allow the phones to better track its location without having to repeatedly query the network. It’s no secret though that companies like Apple, Google and Facebook are eager to use real time locations to better target advertisements to consumers.
Do these companies even need to steal this data from us? There are already online services such as Foursquare or Facebook’s “check in” feature that encourage users to to advertise their current locations to social networks. Local companies here in Melbourne are already taking advantage of these services, offering prizes to consumers that check into their stores.
In an society increasingly less concerned with privacy, I doubt this discovery will hurt Apple sales in any way. Very few people seem to have an issue with advertisers getting their personal information. The real issue though is that there is no real control preventing unauthorized access of this data, particularly if your phone falls into the wrong hands.
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