Brouhaha about iPhone Location File

Discussion of non-operating system issues related to iPods, iPhones, and the iPod Touch.
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Stephen Hart
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Brouhaha about iPhone Location File

Post by Stephen Hart » Wed Apr 27, 2011 3:57 pm

In case you live on Mars (or don't have, or care a whit about, iPhone), Apple's taken it on the chin recently.

The facts: Some "researchers" found a file on some iPhones. They guessed--incorrectly--that the file indicated that Apple was tracking the iPhone's location. In retrospect, it should have been obvious that they were wrong, as the file's location data and the iPhone's recent locations don't match. They took this to the media. The media had a field day. Apple bashing is like writing about men biting dogs.

Apple's response: As anyone following the iPhone knows, it can calculate its location--only when the user asks it to--more quickly because it detects the nearest cell towers and wifi hotspots. It doesn't just rely on GPS. (Note that all cell phones must have GPS for 911 services.) That quicker method of location calculation has been talked about publicly for years.

That's it. iPhone detects nearby cell towers and wifi hotspots (nearby in this case means up to 100 miles away) and sends the data anonymously to Apple servers. The file the "researchers" found on iPhones consists of a localized subset of such data downloaded from this database to help the iPhone find out where it is when the user asks it to.

Apple says it'll make an iOS update to:
•reduce the amount of such data saved on the iPhone
•encrypt the downloaded file on the iPhone
•delete the file if the user turns off location services
•stop backing up the downloaded file to the user's Mac.

Apple also slyly revealed that it has a crowd-sourced traffic information service in the works. It's not clear how that might work.

http://www.apple.com/pr/library/2011/04 ... on_qa.html

That's all good. But it is not an admission that Apple was tracking anyone. The press would like you think otherwise.

And then there's this:
Google acknowledged last week that it, too, collected data about the location of Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers from its users.
and
Google already uses Android phones to collect real-time traffic information.
Two sentences hidden at the bottom of an article about Apple's evil ways.

Oh, and by the way, there's not been any mention of cell phone companies keeping track of where calls are initiated from.



Now if this all had been true, it would validate a hundred movies where the evil forces tracking our hero are homing in on his cell phone. Then he pulls into a truck stop and tosses the cell phone onto the top of a semi's trailer. Problem solved.
Or alternatively, the evildoer merely leaves his own cell phone at home, buys a pay-as-you-go at Safeway, commits the crime, tosses the pay-as-you-go, then goes home and finishes watching the crime movie.
Last edited by Stephen Hart on Tue May 03, 2011 9:27 am, edited 1 time in total.
"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
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Re: Brouhaha about iPhone Location File

Post by Stephen Hart » Mon May 02, 2011 9:13 am

Here's a well-done article explaining the nuts and bolts of this issue, and giving a pretty good lesson on GPS in the bargain.

http://www.macworld.com/article/159528/ ... lsrc=top_1
Last edited by Stephen Hart on Tue May 03, 2011 3:23 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
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Re: Brouhaha about iPhone Location File

Post by Stephen Hart » Tue May 03, 2011 9:24 am

Some folks in Germany have created a project (maybe an art project?) using the locations of wifi and cell towers collected in this brouhaha.

Here's the mention in Macintouch:


May. 3, 2011
Apple
John Manning
Anyone who'd like to do something interesting with his or her iPhone location database should contribute to the crowdflow.net mapping project. They're producing fascinating pictures of crowdsourced data.
Here's an image of the data for Berlin:
Attachments
wifi-berlin-480.jpg
wifi-berlin-480.jpg (55.39 KiB) Viewed 931 times
Last edited by Stephen Hart on Tue May 03, 2011 3:24 pm, edited 1 time in total.
"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
Steve Jobs

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Stephen Hart
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Re: Brouhaha about iPhone Location File

Post by Stephen Hart » Tue May 03, 2011 9:29 am

Oh, and by the way, there's this new brouhaha:
Dutch Police Used TomTom's GPS Data To Target Speeders
Only they didn't actually target any particular speeders. They bought data from TomTom, then used that anonymous data to set up speed traps.
Over the past week, U.S. consumers have been talking about their smart phones keeping tabs on their location. In the Netherlands, another kind of GPS scandal is brewing: The government bought aggregate global positioning system data from the automotive navigation company TomTom and then used it to install speed cameras in places where drivers are most likely to speed.
I suppose it would be rude to suggest that everyone just obey the speed laws, more or less.
"Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works."
Steve Jobs

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