A View from Tom Simonite
What the iPhone Tracking Scare Says about Our Gadgets
The accusation that Apple tracks its users shows we have much to learn about how our gadgets really work.
News broke a week ago that every Apple iPhone kept a never-ending log of its user’s movements. The ensuing media spotlight on Apple and other companies that make smartphone software has revealed that things aren’t quite so bad, but that Apple isn’t alone in collecting approximate information on the location of its devices. Nor is it likely that any smart phone will appear that doesn’t share details of where it is.
Tinkerers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allen got things started late last week, when Allen blogged that:
“[Y]our iPhone, and your 3G iPad, is regularly recording the position of your device into a hidden file…We’re not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it’s clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups, and even device migrations.”
Warden even released software that you can download and use to map out the data hidden in that file, named consolidated.db. It didn’t take long for people to start trying out that software and realize that the trails they uncovered weren’t all that accurate at tracking their movements. The reason why was only confirmed two days ago when Apple posted its response to the controversy:
“The iPhone is not tracking 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.”
The last few days have also see it become clear that phones running Google’s Android operating system have a similar file to Apple’s, albeit one that is (sensibly) encrypted and that stores only the locations of the last 50 cell towers and last 200 wifi networks (this app allows you to see them on a map). Windows phones were revealed to cache similar data, but to use a slightly different strategy and keep it on Microsoft servers where it is accessed by a phone over the air.
That leaves anyone in a market for a smartphone that doesn’t use a form of this practice with nothing to buy. And that isn’t about to change. Blame the limits of GPS chips and smart phone batteries, says Microsoft on a page about its policies on location and privacy. There’s simply no other way to bring users mapping and other features:
“GPS consumes more battery power and uses more data than using Wi-Fi or cell towers to determine location. The additional consumption can have an impact on mobile phone users by increasing data charges and draining the battery.”
Even were phones to become able to give us all the mapping and location-aware apps we’ve come to use without such caching, your phone would still be tracked. Cellular networks need to know which towers their subscribers connect to, making it possible for them to provide detail data on the movement of even the most basic models. German politician Malte Spitz was able to produce maps like the one above when he got hold of the records held by his wireless provider.
One remark made by Apple’s CEO Steve Jobs on Wednesday in his only phone interview on the controversy identified what might the root of the whole problem:
“As new technology comes into the society there is a period of adjustment and education…we haven’t-as an industry-done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here.”
It’s unrealistic to expect everyone - maybe anyone - to read a detailed manual on the workings of their phone and what it does with location data. But Apple and others could address the education issue by borrowing a trick from the various hackers involved in this story and helping users see exactly what their handset is caching (like in the image above). Want to know what your phone knows about you? There should be an app for that.