The Truth About the Apple Location Tracking Scandal

There’s been a fuss in the blogosphere in the last 24 hours about an Apple location tracking scandal after the O’Reilly Radar alleged that Apple is intentionally gathering your iOS location data.

However, it was not until 7:45 a.m. the morning after the scandal broke that O’Reilly clarified that there is no evidence to suggest this data is leaving your custody. Due to this glaring omission in the original story, many people around the web have misunderstood the gravity of the situation and are calling this iPhone location tracking discovery a privacy scandal.

Here’s why the location tracking scandal is likely overblown:

  1. As noted above, it should be emphasized that your personal location file is being stored on your computer, and your computer alone. Apple is not collecting your personalized location data and storing it on their servers.
  2. While Apple does collect some location data from iPhone users, this data is collected anonymously and in a way that “does not personally identify you,” according to Apple’s privacy policy.
  3. Apple Location TrackingAlthough your iPhone location data is stored on your computer by default, apps can only access this location data if you opt in to location tracking.

    Recall that location-based apps prompt you with a notification that asks you if you would like to harness your location — to which you may reply “OK” or “Don’t Allow.”

  4. You can turn Location Services off entirely in Settings >> General >> Location Services. Update: Apparently, disabling location services does not stop your iPhone from tracking your location.
  5. Location data is not perfectly precise. After tracking my location history with the free iPhone Tracker app, it appears the iPhone may be merely tracking the nearby cell towers that are used to pinpoint your location.

My iPhone Location Data

Here is an overview of my locations in the last year, as stored on my computer. You can download the iPhone Tracker app to see a map of your own location history.

iPhone Location Tracker

Yes, it can be shocking to see this map and you might naturally elicit a knee-jerk reaction for fear that Apple is building a Big Brother-esque database of individual iPhone users’ locations. However, there is simply no evidence that Apple is storing these personalized maps on their own servers, despite that it is building a database with some broader location data.

Wired notes that the reason Apple collects anonymized location data was explained in a letter last year by Appleā€™s general counsel Bruce Sewell: “Apple must be able to determine quickly and precisely where a device is located. To do this, Apple maintains a secure database containing information regarding known locations of cell towers and Wi-Fi access points.”

Nevertheless, it would not hurt for Apple to respond to these privacy concerns once again and better clarify its privacy position. What is just as worrisome as Apple storing your location data is a malicious person having access to your location file on your computer in the event that your computer is stolen.

Are you concerned about the Apple location tracking scandal? Feel free to share your opinion in the comments.

Google Latitude for iPhone: Cool or Creepy?

Google Latitude on iPhone

Google’s new location sharing service, Latitude, is now available on iPhone. You can direct your iPhone to Latitude and opt to share your location — with all of your friends, or with select friends only.


I can imagine a few ways Google Latitude could be useful:

  • You’re at a music festival and you’re trying to meet up with your friends. Instead of trying to talk over the music to tell them where to meet up, just share your location with them using Latitude.
  • You’re traveling and you want to give your family members the peace of mind of knowing where you are, so you share your location with them.
  • As Google themselves noted, imagine you’re playing tennis and you want to invite your friends. Simply share your location and include a status message inviting people to join you.
  • Parents can setup Latitude on their children’s phones — Latitude is also available on phones other than iPhone — to keep track of where they are at certain times.
  • Or, in an extreme situation, let’s say you are kidnapped and the police are able to locate you because of Google Latitude.

Note that strangers can never track you using Latitude without your permission. Anyone who wants to track you needs to be approved by you first.

Google Latitude Friend Request


Despite the benefits, however, there are a number of scenarios where Latitude could be abused, some of which have prompted privacy groups to speak out against the Google service.

  • Anyone could covertly set up the service on someone’s phone and track their every move. Once Latitude is active, Google does not remind you that the service is turned on.

    Privacy group Privacy International explains how this could happen:

    We have considered the following five scenarios:

    * An employer provides staff with Latitude-enabled phones on which a reciprocal sharing agreement has been enabled, but does not inform staff of this action or that their movements will be tracked.
    * A parent gifts a mobile phone to a child without disclosing that the phone has been Latitude-enabled.
    * A partner, friend or other person gains access to an unattended phone (left on a bar on in the house) and enables Latitude without the other person’s knowledge.
    * A Latitude-enabled phone is given as a gift.
    * A phone left unattended, for example with security personnel or a repair shop, is covertly enabled.

    Once the phone has been enabled, the second party will be able to mask his phone’s presence, thus ensuring that the victim is unaware that her phone is being tracked.

  • You could also set up Latitude on your own phone and forget that you have it turned on, unintentionally allowing your friends to track your location at all times.
  • Law enforcement could subpoena Google to find out where you are at any given moment. But Google says it stores only your most recent location, so your history is not tracked.
  • Although unlikely, a skilled hacker could crack the system and stalk you or learn your patterns so as to break in to your home at the perfect time.

xkcd Latitude comic

Google Latitude Privacy Tips

In the video below, Google shares some Latitude privacy tips for using the service safely and securely.

What do you think? Does Google Latitude and the idea of location-sharing go too far? Or is this something you plan to use? I’d love to hear your opinion in the comments.