Thinking Tech

Is your smartphone really tracking you?

Is your smartphone really tracking you?

Posting in Technology

Reports that Apple's iPhone keeps secret logs of users' locations have triggered a media firestorm. But what does it really mean to be "tracked?"

iPhone users, here's a good way to go from calm to creeped out in three quick steps:

  1. Sync your iPhone, allowing it to make an automatic backup on your computer
  2. Download the iPhoneTracker Application
  3. Sit back and watch, as the application populates a map with circles showing everywhere you've taken your phone, when you were there, and how often you visited in the past year.

Now, if necessary, please advance to step four: calm down.

Contrary to the spirit of media reports that imply Apple is tracking its users, iPhone users' privacy has not been actively breached by any person or company. Rather, the iPhoneTracker software accesses a small file hidden away in your phone's operating system that keeps a log of your phone's location, determined by its ever-shifting connections to cellphone towers. Apple doesn't have this information, nor does anyone else. It's on your phone, and on any computer that has backups of your phone's software. That's it. There's no apparent malice here on Apple's part, either; in fact, according to John Gruber, this is most likely a bug:

The big question of course, is why Apple is storing this information. I don’t have a definitive answer, but my little-birdie-informed understanding is that consolidated.db acts as a cache for location data, and that historical data should be getting culled but isn’t, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight.

The revelation is still upsetting, chiefly because users weren't aware of this behavior. (I suspect that passive location logging would actually be an attractive service to many users, if only for fun.) Nothing is lost in the mere collection of this data, as it is isolated on devices which the user presumably owns. But it's easy to imagine a scenario where this kind of data collection could be a problem--anyone with extended access to your computer or (stolen?) phone could get what amounts to a detailed travel record for the past year of your life.

Apple may not be alone in this: Android software appears to have a similar location cache, albeit much smaller and buried deeper in the operating system.

In any case, this isn't a huge deal. An embarrassment, sure, but nothing your average user needs to worry about. What a typical users should worry about is the real tracking enabled by our smartphones every day, often with our full consent. From a Popular Mechanics report on privacy published in February:

By using a phone's GPS chip to broadcast your location­—and by making it easy to find friends who have done the same­—"geosocial" networking services such as Foursquare, Facebook Places and Gowalla are transforming the way people interact in the real world. And while a log of your movements is gold to marketers, broadcasting this information can potentially have more dangerous consequences. Security researchers have shown that it's possible to hijack info from geosocial services that was meant to be shared only with friends, and many users don't bother with privacy controls at all.

It's fair to implicate smartphones in the erosion of personal privacy, but it's a rare case when a smartphone will give up your location data without your consent--consent which users give without thought. There are companies tracking users' movements and habits, because users allow them to: the amount of information on the servers at Facebook, Google, Foursquare or Twitter would shock even the most dedicated of the services' fans. Collecting this data is vital to the aforementioned companies' business plans, and more granular data--like location--will only become more important with time.

Perhaps the iPhone tracking story will remind consumers to stay aware of their digital habits, or to reconsider their attitudes toward privacy.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure