Apple Tracks and Logs iPhone and iPad Location Data in iOS 4

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At the Where 2.0 location services conference Wednesday, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden will be announcing the discovery that your iPhone or 3G-capable iPad has been regularly recording your device’s location since the introduction of iOS 4. The iOS devices store a list of the device’s location and time stamps for when the location information was gathered, and does it all using a file that can be easily read by just about anyone.

The file that does the tracking is called “consolidated.db,” which contains latitude and longitude coordinates attached to a timestamp. It’s not clear exactly what triggers your device to record a location, since the recording appears to vary considerably in terms of frequency. Allan and Warden suspect that the logging may be triggered by travelling between cell towers, which aid in location determination, or by activity on the phone, like using apps. It isn’t clear why Apple began storing this info in iOS 4, but Allan and Warden are convinced the effort is intentional.

Back in March, a German politician working with German newspaper Die Zeit sued Deutsche Telekom to get access to his own location data from his mobile phone, and put together a visualization of where he’d been for six months. Carriers do have this data, but it requires a court order to get it from them. Using the iOS 4 location tracking file (which is stored on any computer where you’ve synced your device) and a free, open source application developed by Allan and Warden, anyone can now do the same in about two minutes with virtually no technical expertise.

Allen and Warden warn that the info can be easily accessed on the device itself, in addition being in backups on computers you’ve synced with. Users who want to protect themselves can encrypt their backups through iTunes, but that doesn’t stop information on the device itself from being accessible. We’ve reached out to Apple about the issue and will let you know if they provide any additional info about how to ensure your data remains private.

As you can tell from the screenshot of my location data included in this article, I’m not particularly concerned about this data being out there, but I tend to lean towards the open and trusting end of the scale when it comes to information sharing. Then again, that probably makes me a prime candidate for things like Please Rob Me, and many others will likely not be so comfortable knowing their iPhone or iPad has a relatively accurate record of their whereabouts over the past year or so. Is this disturbing to you, or just a neat visualization trick you can show your friends?

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