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Friend or Phone? Apple and Google Are Watching You

Smartphones are tracking — and reporting — where users take them.

At a technology conference in Santa Clara, Calif., this week it was revealed that Apple’s iPhone 4 has within its operating system a feature that logs a user’s location. The feature creates a file that details location data, which the phones copy to a user’s computer when they sync their phones. The phones also regularly transmit the data back to Apple.

“Your iPhone or iPad automatically generates an unencrypted file called ‘consolidated.db’ which contains the last 10 months of your location data with time stamps. Any computer synched to your Apple device also has this file,” wrote Jesse Brown at  

The revelation has alarmed members of Congress, prompting Sen. Al Franken, D-Minnesota, and Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass, to write separate letters to Apple questioning the practice.

Franken, the AP reports, “said it raises ‘serious privacy concerns,’ especially for children using the devices, because ‘anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user’s home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend and the trips he has taken — over the past months or even a year.’”

Criticism of the tracking function has been swift and largely uniform. And Apple’s apparent failure to publicly address the matter has only served to fan the flames.

While “security experts said they suspected that Apple had been using the data to be able to pinpoint a phone’s location more quickly, saving bandwidth and battery life,” The New York Times’ Miguel Helft and Kevin J. O’Brien wrote, “… the controversy has been magnified by Apple’s silence. For the second day, the company did not respond to calls and e-mails seeking comment.”

There are a host of obvious issues iPhone users might have with having their location data being unknowingly logged. Many in the blogosphere, incensed over the perceived privacy violation, immediately sounded the alarm. But, given that the phones are tracking users, one pertinent question is how accurately do they do so?

Blogger and Web developer Will Clarke, The Register reported, examined the data collected by “his own iPhone during a recent round-trip bike tour he took from Philadelphia to New Jersey. When he compared the results to the actual route, he found that “almost all the points were way off.’”

Some of the data points, Clarke told The Register, were inaccurate by up to two miles.

Regardless of the tracking function’s accuracy, “The larger question,” according to an editorial in the Chicago Sun Times, “is how do we protect ourselves in an emerging world where others can assemble portfolios on each of us with mind-boggling detail.”

On Friday, the controversy grew thanks to a story that appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

“In the case of Google, according to new research by security analyst Samy Kamkar, an HTC Android phone collected its location every few seconds and transmitted the data to Google at least several times an hour.” Like Apple, the Android “also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier.”

Like Apple, Google did not respond to The Wall Street Journal’s request for comment.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.