An article appearing in the Wall Street Journal this morning says that an iPhone user’s location data – their coordinates and some timestamps – is automatically collected by the phones, regardless of whether the location-sharing feature on the phone is turned on or off.
The revelation comes after two developers released an iPhone app that maps the information that an iPhone records about a user’s movements. The app doesn’t record anything itself, it only displays files that are already on the iPhone. According to Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, the developers who made the iPhone app, there are at least two problems with the iPhone collecting location data:
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.
In response to U.S. Congressional inquiries in 2010 about the privacy of user’s location data, Apple wrote that “location data will not be collected at all for users who have location services turned off.” Today’s article in the WSJ reports that this is not, in fact, the case. While the data may not be transmitted to Apple as it is when location services are on, it appears that regardless of whether location services are on or off, some location data is still collected in the iPhone.