Apple to address iPhone tracking concerns with patch

— 1:40 PM on April 27, 2011

Hot on the heels of yesterday's lawsuit filing (not to mention all the media commotion), Apple has announced an impending iOS software update meant to tweak the tracking behavior of its devices. The software update will be out some time within the next few weeks. Apple says this update encrypts the location data cache on the iPhone itself and:

• reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
• ceases backing up this cache, and
• deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

That ought to alleviate most folks' concerns, I would think. Since the aforementioned lawsuit concerns iOS devices' past and current behavior, however, I somehow doubt the plaintiffs are considering dropping the case.

As well as announcing the iOS update, Apple has also gone into a little bit of detail about what exactly is tracked and logged—and why—in the current software. In a nutshell, the company says it doesn't track users' locations and has never done so; users are merely "confused" because it has "not provided enough education about these issues to date." Here's what's really happening, in the company's words:

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

This wasn't all about education, as the company goes on to admit. iPhones aren't supposed to store months upon months of location data, nor are they meant to continue updating Wi-Fi and cell tower data when Location Services are switched off. Those are alleged bugs. Apple claims only about a week's worth of location data should be stored, and that the upcoming iOS patch will address the problem (in addition to encrypting the stored data).

It's nice to see Apple buckle to users' protests so promptly, though all the media FUD about location tracking probably made some sort of policy change inevitable. Implementing sensible privacy policies and educating users about exactly what their devices track seems like something every major software or hardware vendor should be doing these days.

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