Apple responds to iPhone tracking, privacy concerns | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 27.04.2011
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Apple responds to iPhone tracking, privacy concerns

Apple says it is collecting "anonymous traffic data" for location-based services, not tracking iPhone owners. The company adds it will update the software to log only seven days worth of data, rather than several months.

iPhone tracking data

The iPhone tracking data raised eyebrows globally

Apple has responded on Wednesday to the revelation that its iPhone and iPad products track their users' movements across mobile phone networks and WiFi networks around the globe.

Two British researchers last week described at a tech conference in California how this tracking data was being stored in an unencrypted file on the phone itself. They also wrote a data visualization program so that any iPhone owner could diagram their data on to an easy-to-understand map.

In a statement published to Apple's website, the company said users were "confused" about what exactly the company was doing with this data.

"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone," the statement said. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

Location-based services


Apple said it was using iPhone users to create a 'traffic database'

The statement went on to say the location data that the British pair found was not the precise location of the iPhone itself, "but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone."

The company also explained that it is "collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years."

The statement also said the anonymous data it did have was used to help the phone find its location in regions where weak GPS signals could make the process take minutes rather than seconds. By using a log of WiFi networks and cell tower data, Apple noted that it could reduce this location time to "just a few seconds."

However, the US company called the months or years worth of data stored on each phone a "bug we uncovered," and said that following a software update to be released in the coming weeks, the iPhone and iPad would only store seven days worth of such data and that this data would be encrypted.

"It's pretty much what I expected at this stage," wrote Alasdair Allan, one of the British researchers who publicized Apple's practice of storing the data, in a Twitter message to Deutsche Welle. "The response is measured and the update should fix the problem."

Government response remains uncertain

Senator Al Franken

Senator Al Franken (right), of Minnesota (USA), will hold hearings on mobile privacy

Since the revelation last week, data protection authorities in Europe, South Korea and the United States have opened investigations into Apple's behavior. US Senator Al Franken has already scheduled a US Senate subcommittee hearing on the issue of mobile privacy for May 10, and has invited representatives from Apple and Google.

However, in the immediate wake of Apple's new statement, data protection authorities had not yet determined how they would respond.

In a statement e-mailed to Deutsche Welle, a spokesperson for the Bavarian data protection authority, which has the most direct jurisdiction over Apple in Germany, did not have anything to add.

"We do not have any further response to Apple's latest explanation," Heike Dümmler wrote.

Dümmler's office last week said it would "approach Apple in a timely fashion and request it take a position" before making a judgment on potential infringements of phone-owners' privacy.

Requests for comment from the office of Peter Schaar, Germany's federal data protection commissioner, and CNIL, the French national data protection authority, as well as to the Italian data protection authority, have so far gone unanswered.

Author: Cyrus Farivar

Editor: Sean Sinico

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