Your iPhone Knows Where in the World You Are

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I may have only a vague recollection of where I've been for the past year, but that's okay, because my iPhone knows. 

A strange swirl of reports over the past few days indicate that not only does the iPhone track your whereabouts in real time, but also stores your location data in the device itself, in unprotected files. This means that anyone who knew how to access these files -- and has gained access to your phone -- can find out where you've been.

But wait! You can turn off location tracking in your general settings, by switching the default for "Location Services" from "on" to "off."

But no, maybe not! The Wall Street Journal said today that they tested it, and even when it's switched off? This information still goes into the phone's internal file, with information transmitted by cell towers and wi-fi networks.

Now, I knew my iPhone was close to magic. I can buy things, write blog posts, take pictures, and even occasionally make a phone call on it. It's my alarm clock and grocery list, radio and gaming source. It's the next best thing to a robot that will do my bidding -- anywhere I can get a signal, of course. So it's really no surprise that it tracks and logs my travels, with longitude and latitude coordinates, naturally.

The benefit for Apple is the (relatively) easy gathering of geolocation data. If they can find where all of the iPhones are in all the world, they can figure out where calls drop, and also use the comings and goings of users to improve geolocation apps. The company wrote a 13-page letter to customers last year in response to inquiries from Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX), informing them of the data gathering situation, but this information was either not widely shared or no one read it.

This weekend, Sen. Al Franken wanted some answers from Steve Jobs, and on Saturday Markey called for a Congressional investigation, claiming this data storage poses a threat to children from predators who can hack their phones.

Some people agree that it's a bad idea. Wired quoted Ph.D student David Navalho, a specialist in location services on mobile devices with advanced sensors:

“I’m guessing someone screwed up. It’s basically bad for users. If someone steals the phone they have access to a lot of data.”

And by the way, the Android does it too.

This location tracking may not be such a big deal for those of us who are FourSquare-obsessed, who freely give up information to mark our location on the planet on a daily, perhaps hourly, basis. Perhaps we aren't concerned about being followed, about anyone stealing our phone or hacking into it for nefarious purposes. Maybe we haven't considered the possibility that this kind of data could be used for legal purposes -- in a criminal case or a divorce proceeding.

Maybe it seems so ubiquitous -- the data collection that occurs everywhere from the library to the grocery store checkout line -- that it's part of the landscape and it doesn't occur as an issue. I admit it: I feel so tracked, so counted and named that I consider full disclosure the default, whether it's on Facebook (another place where people seem to expect privacy I'd never consider possible on a network like that, no matter what your settings are, quite frankly) or on my phone. And my primary concern with location and my phone is the "Find my phone" app that would make it within the realm of possiblity for me to find my beloved phone if I lost it, which I have, and (sadly) may, again.

But that's me, and I'm so far in the matrix I don't know where it starts and I end, or something. This clearly does matter to some people, and they don't like it. Apple has been quiet on the issue so far, with only an as yet-unsubstantiated rumor surfacing today that Steve Jobs himself had responded to a customer, saying they didn't track user locations at all.

While this is all shaking out, here's Stay Calm: a Guide to iPhone Location Tracking and You.

Andy Ihnatko says there's really no way for anyone to get your data without access to your computer or iPhone, but Apple should still fix this anyway, if only for the "Ick Factor."

Nancy Scola puts an open-source journalism spin on the issue at TechPresident, with a link to the Alasdair Allen post that essentially broke this story. Allen and Pete Warden built this program so you can track your own phone data. (I haven't tried it yet.)

So, would this be enough to get you to give up your iPhone or Droid? Have you thought about this with any kind of mobile device?

Contributing Editor Laurie White writes at LaurieWrites. Her photos are on Flickr.

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