Researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden said Wednesday that they had found what appears to be a previously undisclosed file on iPhones that reveals where the phone has been. According to the pair, such tracking began with iOS 4, and the information is not only on the phone but also on any computer synchronized with the phone. They explained their findings in a blog post on O'Reilly Radar and in a video that's posted on YouTube.
Allan and Warden created a Mac OS X application that lets users view their own location data displayed on a map. I've been carrying around an iPhone for only the past couple of weeks, but after backing up my phone to a MacBook and running their application, I was able to trace my steps and display a map of a bus trip I took last week from Boston to New York as well as my recent travels around New York and Silicon Valley. Allan and Warden said their data showed their locations for nearly the past year.
The discovery, according to Electronic Privacy Information Clearinghouse (EPIC) President Marc Rotenberg, is both surprising and disappointing. In a recorded interview (scroll down to listen to the podcast), Rotenberg said, "I actually remember when Steve Jobs was discussing locational apps at one of the announcements of new iPhone products, and Steve made a point of talking about the importance of protecting privacy for users and said that they had incorporated strong features so users would have control over locational data."
Rotenberg said storing such data on the phone for long periods of time violates best practices. "When companies no longer need the data for the service, such as finding appropriate Wi-Fi spots or cell phone towers, it really should be deleted," he said. He also questions whether "Apple might have crossed the line and violated Federal communications law." He said he was still investigating whether Apple had violated its own privacy policies, but he questioned whether most consumers would have the time or expertise "to figure out whether this was permissible under their policy." He said he "can't imagine any scenario under which someone would want information about them being kept secretly."
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