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Summary:

Steve Jobs has allegedly issued one of his typically terse email replies regarding the location tracking database that resides unencrypted on all iOS devices, according to MacRumors. The email told a concerned user that Apple doesn’t track location info, but that its competition does.

location-services-feature

Steve Jobs has reportedly issued one of his typically terse email replies regarding the location tracking database that resides unencrypted on all iOS devices, according to MacRumors. In an email exchange that came to light Monday, Jobs (or whoever answers the sjobs@apple.com email) told a concerned user that Apple doesn’t track location info, but its competition, on the other hand, does.

I reached out to Apple to confirm the authenticity of the email, but have yet to hear back. Here’s the full text of the alleged email exchange:

Q: Steve,

Could you please explain the necessity of the passive location-tracking tool embedded in my iPhone? It’s kind of unnerving knowing that my exact location is being recorded at all times. Maybe you could shed some light on this for me before I switch to a Droid. They don’t track me.

A: Oh yes they do. We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.

Sent from my iPhone

Google actually addressed concerns of location tracking on Friday, with a spokesman for the company admitting that if a user opts-in to using location services (an option which is on by default when setting up an Android device for first use), anyonymized location data is regularly sent to the company in order to help “provide a better mobile experience on Android devices.”

According to a letter from Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell last year, Apple collects data for similar purposes, but the assertion in the email above that “we don’t track anyone” would appear to contradict that. It’s probably more in reference to the “consolidated.db” file that stores location info locally. There’s nothing to suggest that the info stored in that file is accessible to outside parties, including Apple, so that’s probably what’s being referred in this case.

Apple’s iOS location tracking file has garnered a lot of attention from U.S. and international press and lawmakers since it was put on display by researchers at the Where 2.0 location services conference last week. We reported that it had actually been public knowledge for a while, but it didn’t catch the attention of the media the way it has now. Whether or not it’s being blown out of proportion, Apple will have to address the issue in some manner soon, since it doesn’t look like it’ll go away on its own at this point.

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  1. I’ve done some detailed analysis on the data and concluded that this data is not storing your detailed location, nor is it storing history – it’s just a cache of cell tower locations that you have been somewhat close to. http://geothought.blogspot.com/2011/04/scoop-apples-iphone-is-not-storing-your.html

  2. One small detail…the consolidated.db file (and all other backup data) is unencrypted only if you don’t password-lock your iphone…if you activate the password on your phone, your data is encrypted and can’t be accessed by the mapping tool that’s being used for this.

    1. Sorry, Vox, that’s not true. I PW-lock my phone as part of a corporate policy at work, but the iPhoneTracker software picked up consolidated.db without an problems.

      1. Seems like you are right…I ran the app again and it did show the bunch of dots…guess it’s time to encrypt my backups :)

  3. After the recent incident where a hole opened in the fuselage of a Southwestern aircraft, I was impressed by how quickly Boeing went public with the reason and took the blame for a failed fastener that had been given a too-long service life.

    Apple’s management needs to take Boeing’s as a role model. In case after case, we hear nothing from Apple about problems such as this one. No detailing of the cause and no taking of blame. Just silence, broken occasionally by a terse email from Steve Jobs.

    And if any blame is parceled out, it’s placed on competitors. Antennas issues with the iPhone 4, were answered with claims that other phones had the same problem. In this issue, Jobs attempted to shift the blame to Google rather than explain what Apple is or is not doing with that location file.

    Apple needs to lighten up, become more open, and admit its mistakes rather than (at best) fixing them covertly. And Steve Jobs shouldn’t be the only one who can talk candidly without fear of losing his job.

    1. You mean replying to a congressman last year about this isn’t open enough?
      There’s actually nothing new here except for a file being renamed and located in a different place. Oh, and a couple of researchers that thought they discovered some new rare earth metal and the blogosphere going nuts over it.

    2. A hole in a plane is something completely different than a file in a backup on your computer. Also the risks (if any, have a lock on your door…) are quite different.

    3. You my friend are full of sh!t. :)

    4. Open, social- those Apple don’t do. Overhype, manufactured scarcity, secrecy, close, elitism, conformity – Apple does. The rise of Apple tracks with adherence totalitarianism in some people these days.

  4. Vito Positano Monday, April 25, 2011

    “Tracking,” in the sense the article is using, is a subcategory of domestic spying. It’s an unregulated industry being led by Choice Point, Lexis Nexix, etc.,

    While Android spies on your data, for all we know, it surreptitiously gathers it and could secretly sell it to the CIA, NRO, NSA and to any gov. spy agency that wants to purchase it, furthering and more comprehensively adding to their ability to spy on your data which you did not want them to have. You were either economically coerced to give it over or it was stolen.

  5. Steffen Jobbs Monday, April 25, 2011

    Haha. ‘Dems’ fighting words! Stick it to ‘em, Steve. More Locationgate FUD to be spread around the internet. It must be truly upsetting to all those hapless consumers who are trying to conceal their personal covert activities or should I say boring personal lives that no one gives a damn about.

  6. Has everyone forgotten that in late 2001 the FCC mandated that all cellphones have tracking capabilities built in under guise of locating callers who call 911? Why is it such a shock now, almost 10 years later that phones have evolved to transmit location info automatically in our post 9/11 world?

    I’m not saying this because I support what’s going on. In fact I think it’s a horrendous invasion of privacy. But maybe it’s not Jobs who should be shouldering the blame here. It’s big brother who’s watching and who also has probably gagged Apple from telling you the truth… for your own protection ;)

  7. It’s really a short informative answer :) My favourite part is: “Sent from my iPhone” ;)

  8. @PeterBatty “it’s just a cache of cell tower locations that you have been somewhat close to” – Does phone need such cache to operate? No. Have the owner of the phone and payer of the service for those towers been asked if he allows usage of his/her device for such purpose? No. Does Apple own the phone or provides service in question? No. Hence it is as “just” as locksmith who installed lock in your home who you find months later in your home “just” tabulating content of your wallet. In other words – thievery.

    @Vox “One small detail…the consolidated.db file (and all other backup data) is unencrypted only if you don’t password-lock your iphone…” – Irrelevant. Why is there such file and collection process at all? How does it benefit the owner of device? No such tracking should be allowed without explicit knowledge and agreement by the owner.
    @PaulShort “But maybe it’s not Jobs who should be shouldering the blame here.” – One evil does not justify another. It should be a simple and common decency to setup any tracking as opt-in and not force it on by terms of service. It was Apple (and by micromanaging proxy S.Jobs) fault that they were not civil and caring for customers rights. Very existence of this file is violation of those. Fact that it was also unencrypted is just sloppy work, again showing little or no attention to customer safety.

    1. dusanmal – You seem to be off on a number of things…

      Yes, the phone owner has been asked/told, once in terms-of-service, and once when allowing location services. They haven’t been told explicitly about what this entails, but they have been told. Thievery? Hardly.

      As has been explained up to a year ago, the file exists to make finding the closest tower or wifi easier as well. Ever started up a stand-alone GPS unit cold and waited 5 minutes to acquire satellites before it can tell you where you are? This helps prevent that according to some reports.

      You certainly don’t seem to like Apple/Jobs but here you may have a point, it was probably just sloppy.

      On the other hand, where’s your rant about all the others like android/Google that essentially track the same kind of stuff. Or your cell carrier in general. Or, even worse, your credit card company that knows more about you than you and sells the info. Or OnStar, or, or, or

    2. It great on battery life by not having to locate the cell towers and wi fi hotspots again and again.

      You should be more concerned with phones which send back data to the mothership.

  9. Chriet Titulaer Tuesday, April 26, 2011

    It’s becoming kind of annoying that Apple never officially comments, and instead uses a personal email account to respond to issues unofficially.
    Yes apple, you are responsible for the tracking issue and it’s not beyond you to take away some of your users’ worries by replying officially.

  10. Re: Apple Doesn’t Track

    Clever choice of words. Note he didn’t mention designing AND patenting software that stores location data on their devices… since the day you first turned on your iPhone or iPad. Of course, that’s your silly phone, not Apple. What could data like that possibly be used for? Uh, read the patent!

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