iSpy With My Little iPhone - but Not Much to See There
The discovery that iOS regularly logs its location has caused much commotion, and even U.S. senators are chiming in with proclamations of how Apple has violated users' privacy. Privacy is no small issue, of course, but if these critics were to carefully read what Apple's disclosed about the technology and look at the actual data, perhaps they'd tone down their rhetoric.
One of the biggest news stories around the iPhone in a long time is the recent -- for lack of a better term -- LocationGate fiasco. As with most stories like this, fear and link bait rule the day. You also have, in this case, U.S. Senators smelling blood in the water and inserting themselves into the story -- and in some cases actually contributing to the misinformation out there.
Take Senator Al Franken with this quote when talking about the data file that has location information in it:
"Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of a user's home, the business he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attends."
Problem is, if he or his staffers had looked at the file in question, they would have realized that actually was not possible and definitely not an accurate statement.
If a bad guy gets your data they will not -- repeat NOT -- be able to figure out where you live. Not your exact address. Maybe the part of town -- but definitely not your specific house (unless your house is the only one for miles).
However, if they get your phone and they go to your mail app and see who an email was sent to and then go to contacts and find that person -- then they can figure out your address. Same thing if they get a hold of your laptop.
Lets face facts: There are much easier and faster ways for a bad guy to figure out your home address then going through location data in a .db file on your laptop -- which, as I said, still will not give your exact address. Same is true for figuring out where you work or where your kids go to school.
What It Does Show
If the senator's people and others making claims like this had taken the time to look at the data in question, they would have seen something like Figure 1.
What you see is a grid pattern. The image is a screen shot of data collected on my phone / computer. From this image, there is no way to tell the exact location of my house -- which is in the map above -- but around 1 million other people live in that map area as well. Can you say "needle in a haystack?"
It did not help that in Apples own press release, Apple did not state that the data was rounded off. What Apple actually said was:
"The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of WiFi hotspots and cell towers around your current location"
That has lead people to post that Apple is keeping the precise location of WiFi hotspots -- and one likely is in your house.
No, they don't. Apple is actually rounding off to the grid pattern seen in the image -- and not the precise location of cell towers and WiFi hotspots. See Figure 2 for proof of that.
I am 100 percent certain that there is not a cell tower or WiFi hotspot in the middle of the runway of Islip Airport. And the chances that the rest of the cell towers and WiFi hotspots are that perfectly spaced is zero.
A Very General Location
The data will, however, show what cities and general areas you visit at a given time. So if you are telling your significant other you are going to meet up with a buddy and go to the ball game, which is on the north side of town, and your data shows you were on the south side of town (you know, down near where the strip clubs are located), they are going to know something was up. But they probably would have figured that out by the glitter on your shirt and the smell of cheap perfume -- or the ATM receipt from Spanky's.
Same if you tell your boss you need a day off to visit your sick mom in Dayton, Ohio, but your location data shows you were in Las Vegas -- or worse, the town or city of your biggest competitor.
So yes, this information on your computer and phone is not good. But it is not as bad as a certain senator and many bloggers made it out to be. And it's actually not as bad as even Apple seems to have made it out to be. To Apple's credit, per their press release, they did acknowledge this data should not have been gathered and kept for as long as it was, and it should not have been so easy to access. They also stated they will be updating their software to fix this issue. It will still gather location data (rounded off) of nearby cell towers and WiFi hotspots. They just will not keep the data on your device as long and they will eventually encrypt that data.
I don't want to make this sound like a non-issue -- privacy is a big issue. But if you plan on going somewhere you don't want someone or anyone to know of, try this: Leave your iPhone or Android phone or any cellphone at home.