iPhone Logging Location Data, With Location Services On or Off

    April 25, 2011
    Josh Wolford

If you haven’t heard, this Apple location tracking story was kind of a big deal last week.

Last Wednesday, two data scientists reported on a finding that devices running iOS 4 or later contained a hidden file that contains location data going back to nearly a year in some cases. This data on the file consolidated.db includes longitude and latitude coordinates along with timestamps. The unencrypted file is accessible via the device or on any computer with which the device has been synched.

This find naturally started a wave of outrage and concern among individuals worried about privacy. People are scared that information like this could easily fall into the wrong hands and the implications of being able to easily graph one’s every move are indeed sinister.

Amidst the privacy outrage, cooler heads attempted to lessen the shock by saying that this news is actually old news. Apple routinely collects random and anonymous location information from its millions of devices for the purpose of location-map building. Although no findings suggest that the recently uncovered location data on consolidated.db is being sent to Apple, the company has never said anything about storing this kind of data on a specific file, moreover one which is so accessible. Thus, the concern has legitimacy.

In another act of the drama, today the Wall Street Journal is reporting that turning off location services in your settings doesn’t stop the logging of data. They conducted their own test and found that disabling the location services setting does not prevent the collection of data about your whereabouts even though many suggested this action last week to folks concerned about their privacy. From the WSJ:

Apple and Google have both previously said that the data they receive is anonymous and that users can turn it off by disabling location services.

However, it appears that turning off location services doesn’t disable the storage of location data on iPhones. The Journal tested the collection of data on an iPhone 4 that had been restored to factory settings and was running the latest version of Apple’s iOS operating system.

The Journal disabled location services (which are on by default) and immediately recorded the data that had initially been gathered by the phone. The Journal then carried the phone to new locations and observed the data. Over the span of several hours as the phone was moved, it continued to collect location data from new places.

These data included coordinates and time stamps; however, the coordinates were not from the exact locations that the phone traveled, and some of them were several miles away. The phone also didn’t indicate how much time was spent in a given location. Other technology watchers on blogs and message boards online have recorded similar findings.

The WSJ also reported last week that Google is routinely collecting location data from Android devices more aggressively and less anonymously than previously thought.

This find may add fuel to the fire as is suggests that users have even less control over personal data collection than they might have thought. And this could end up becoming a big problem for Apple, Google and any other companies that get drawn into this privacy inquiry. Senator Al Franken has already written a letter to Steve Jobs asking about iPhone tracking and on Saturday Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts called for a congressional investigation into the issue.

Today, Bloomberg is reporting that Apple is now being investigated by the Korea Communications Commission, South Korea’s comm regulator, to determine is Apple is breaking laws in in their country for storing the location data.