1:08pm

Wed April 20, 2011
The Two-Way

Researchers: Apple's iPhone Keeps Track Of Every Little Place You Go

Researchers at the University of Exeter discovered that iPhones using the latest operating system keeps detailed records of where you've been.

At the O'Reilly Where 2.0 Conference, Peter Warden, of Data Science Toolkit, and Alasdair Allan, a researcher at University of Exeter, said they were looking to visualize information on phones. It might reveal things you didn't even know you were carrying around said Warden.

On their iPhones, they found a file simply titled "consolidated.db" and it had a series of latitude and longitudes. Perhaps, the researchers thought, the phone would store a week's worth of locations for the pictures they had taken. Then they took the data and put it on a map and were surprised with what they found.

"It turned out to be pretty much a year's worth of data for every cell [tower] that we've been through since we upgraded to iOS4," said Warden.

At the O'Reilly site, Allan writes:

The cell phone companies have always had this data, but it takes a court order to access it. Now this information is sitting in plain view, unprotected from the world. Beyond this, there is even more data that we have yet to look at in depth.

For example, in my own case I (Alasdair) discovered a list of hundreds of thousands of wireless access points that my iPhone has been in range of during the last year.

"Apple has made it possible for almost anybody — a jealous spouse, a private detective — with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you've been," Warden told The Guardian.

Just how detailed is this information? Here's a visualization of data from an iPhone that went from Washington, D.C. to New York City via Amtrak:

Paidcontent, a tech news site, reports the researchers looked at other phones, including Android devices, but couldn't find similar information. The researchers say there is no evidence that the data is being transmitted to Apple or any other company. When you switch phones, however, that file is copied to the new iPhone.

Paidcontent adds:

Simon Davies, director of the pressure group Privacy International, said: "This is a worrying discovery. Location is one of the most sensitive elements in anyone's life – just think where people go in the evening. The existence of that data creates a real threat to privacy. The absence of notice to users or any control option can only stem from an ignorance about privacy at the design stage."

In some ways, this shouldn't be surprising. Back in June of 2010, Apple updated its privacy policy to include a paragraph that allows Apple and "partners and licensees" to collect and store user location data. According to the Los Angeles Times, Apple says that data remains anonymous, but "analysts have shown, however, that large, specific data sets can be used to identify people based on behavior patterns."

In that piece The Times muses that Apple might be integrating location data to its advertising system, "for instance, to help local shops sell coupons to users in the neighborhood."

If you're really interested in getting into the guts of this, O'Reilly has posted a 20-minute video of the researchers explaining how they found what they found; that's below. But they've also released a piece of free software that will take this info from your iPhone and map it for you.

Update at 1:21 p.m. ET: When concern about its new privacy policy surfaced last summer, Apple sent two Congressmen a 32-page response to explain the change. Apple said they take great care to protect users' privacy and it allows users to turn-off location based services. On an iPhone, they point out, you go to your settings and turn off location services. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.