I wonder how many iPhone users are aware that their movements are automatically being logged in a small, easily accessible application on their ‘phones? Recent, important work by Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden has shown just how easy it would be for unscrupulous people to access this information. It also raises worrying questions about why Apple has done this, and why they have not clearly informed users that this information is so readily available?
Allen and Warden have written a neat Open Source application that enables users to visualise this information – down to a very high level of detail in space-time – called iPhoneTracker. Essentially, Apple stores this information on the ‘phone in terms of latitude, longitude and time stamp. The database of locations is stored on the iPhone, but is also on any backups that might have been made when synced with iTunes.
As Apple and Warden comment with respect to why Apple has done this, “It’s unclear. One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s pure speculation. The fact that it’s transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn’t accidental.”
They also point to the very serious moral and ethical issues that this raises: “The most immediate problem is that this data is stored in an easily-readable form on your machine. Any other program you run or user with access to your machine can look through it. The more fundamental problem is that Apple are collecting this information at all. Cell-phone providers collect similar data almost inevitably as part of their operations, but it’s kept behind their firewall. It normally requires a court order to gain access to it, whereas this is available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone or computer. By passively logging your location without your permission, Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements”.
The screen grab from their visualiser shows where I have been using my iPhone in recent months. Perhaps colleagues who have been sceptical about why I have various different ‘phones and different SIM cards will now understand the reason!
We should all be immensely grateful to Alasdair Allen and Pete Warden for bringing this to our attention!
See also Jacqui Cheng’s recent article on this.