Apr 11

iPhone’s perfect storm

How I spent my winter vacation, courtesy of iPhone

If the iPhone location-tracking mess has you alternately muttering, “How dare they,” “Who the hell cares,” and “You tell ’em, Apple,” there’s good reason.

This particular blip in iPhone history is being fueled by three different forces.

For starters, there’s the growing national/global paranoia about our personal information falling into the wrong hands.

Then we have the never-ending obsession with Apple — with anti-Apple forces eager to pounce on any perceived chink in the armor and admirers eager to leap to the company’s defense.

Last, we have Apple tossing out its own statement yesterday — too late for some people’s tastes — and with enough fodder to give both sides some good ammunition.

Personally, I find it odd that people would get bent out of shape that their approximate location history has been stored somewhere in iTunes. (A) I could care less who knows where I’ve been, and (B) I thought we Mac users were so smug about our computers being safe and secure.

If someone did break into my computer, the iPhone location file is the last thing I’d care about them finding. My computer contains everything: my contacts, credit cards, bank accounts and information about the secret second family I have in Wisconsin. (Damn, I didn’t mean to say that out loud.)

The story gets bigger mostly because it involves Apple. In the last few weeks, there have been two far more serious threats to our confidential information, neither of which seems to have gotten as much press as LocationGate.

Just days ago, the Playstation Network was hacked. About 77 million had their email address and possibly credit card number stolen.

A short time ago, the marketing company Epsilon was hacked in the largest name and email heist in history. You’ve probably received a number of warnings from big companies who relied on Epsilon, advising that your email address has been compromised as a result. They’re very sorry for the inconvenience.

So excuse me if I don’t get upset that a hacker who hasn’t yet broken into my computer might one day sneak in and find out that I drove down to Florida a couple of months ago.

But now Apple blasts into the news with an official explanation. They say they’ve been silent because, basically, they’ve been working on it. They should know that the most frustrating part of air travel is when the pilot leaves us in the dark. A simple “we’re experiencing a delay, and I’ll get back to you when I have more information” would have sufficed.

Reportedly, Steve Jobs, Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall worked on the response together because they wanted to get it right. Unfortunately, parts of their explanation sound more like spin than they should. For example:

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location…

Kind of the same thing, isn’t it? I look at my own iPhone location map, and I’m sorry — those are in fact the locations I visited.

They say that saving a year’s worth of data is a “bug,” because it should only save a week’s worth. It’s also a bug that data collection continues even when you turn off location services. To common folk, bugs are things that make software crash or perform improperly. In both of these cases, the software is doing exactly what Apple told it to do. They seem to be more errors in judgment than bugs. Especially when we know that this information is collected on purpose.

In the end, I don’t think it’s a big deal. Apple could have been more straightforward, but I take them at their word that the collected data is anonymous and used only to improve future services.

In fact, this could be a huge moneymaking opportunity if you have the hacking skills. Imagine: Location Maps of the Stars. How fun it would be to see the 12-month location maps of the rich and famous — starting with Jobs, Schiller and Forstall.

Tags: , , , , ,

  • Might be useful in a CSI episode… “let’s see where the victim has been in the last few month!”

  • winc06

    Kind of the same thing, isn’t it? I look at my own iPhone location map, and I’m sorry — those are in fact the locations I visited.

    Not really. It is not even the location of the cell tower because that is represented on the software I saw as a right angle grid with towers out at sea. Cell tower can be seen along freeways that do not move in a right angle grid. So the dot on the map does not even represent the location of the tower, or where you are in the cell tower broadcast area. So if you consider your location as being given away when you could only be narrowed down to about a square mile area, you have a different definition of location than I have.

  • ken segall

    I didn’t mean to imply that iPhone is tracking exact locations. All the available information — even before Apple’s explanation — has made it clear that the location data is approximate at best.

    When I said “those are the locations I visited,” I was not talking about specific addresses. I visited Rocky Mount, NC, and the iPhone map clearly showed that I was there. If I were a sneakier version of myself, that kind of information could get me in trouble — because I live in NY.

  • James

    “Kind of the same thing, isn’t it? I look at my own iPhone location map, and I’m sorry — those are in fact the locations I visited.”

    No, it is not the same thing. Tracking you would means the phone would have accurate data on where you’ve been. What Apple is doing is providing location for your phone to use. Kind of like getting a map when you visit a new area.

    There is no guarantee that the information in the cache file is accurate. Many people have reported that the file contains locations that they have never visited.

    The file is simply Apple’s engineering efforts to make your iPhone work better. While they could have spent some time and effort thinking about the perception issues the the consolidated.db file might create, it is obvious that they didn’t. This is not the same as collecting information on purpose. The data isn’t collected anyway, it is downloaded.

    The difference between location assistance and location tracking is subtle but one is engineering and the other is policy. I don’t understand why people can’t understand the difference.

  • ken segall

    There’s a semantics issue here. “Tracking” doesn’t have the same, precise meaning for everyone. But when I look at my own map and see my drive to Florida as clear as a bell … it’s difficult not to feel tracked.

    But like I say, I could care less about it. There is no evil purpose here. I agree 100% that this is innocent information that Apple uses to make our phones better.

    If Apple screwed up, it was just as you suggest. They didn’t consider the perception issue that would ensue when and if the file was discovered. No big deal. Life isn’t perfect. Thankfully, Apple is very good at fixing mistakes and learning from them.

  • David Dean

    >To common folk, bugs are things that make software
    >crash or perform improperly. In both of these cases,
    >the software is doing exactly what Apple told it to do.

    If the software is failing to do what it was supposed to do. (i.e. auto delete after a week, and not record anything when you’ve opted out) that *is* performing improperly. You seem to be inferring malice on the part of Apple, that they meant for the software to fail in these regards, that Apple explicitly chose for the software to fail to meet these requirements. As a software engineer, I think this kind of thing is far more likely to be an unintentional error than malice.

  • ken segall

    I do not believe there was any malice on the part of Apple. Of all the technology companies, I have the most faith in Apple to “do the right thing.” This is either an oversight or unintentional error, because the Apple I know would never deliberately get sneaky with our personal data.

    I still consider this more of an oversight than a bug. There is no “improper performance” apparent to any normal user — Location Services does just what you’d expect it to do. It allows or disallows apps from detecting your current location. If enabled, you can go down a level to control location-based apps individually. A reasonably intelligent user would have no reason to even suspect that location-based data is being collected beyond what’s apparent in these controls — thus, the mini-mess that Apple inadvertently created.