Is Your iPhone tracking you? The facts, risks, and solutions
A "stalker" file on iPhones and 3G iPads running on iOS 4 tracks where you are along with a time stamp and saves it on your device for a year or more. The news of this tracking issue was released yesterday.
I am surprised that Apple, one of my favorite companies, is tracking my every move and hiding the information on my devices. Even if Apple is only using the information to sell ads at a better rate, I don't like it. According to UK researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, interviewed by GeekWire;
iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads have been recording the position of user devices into a hidden file since the introduction of iOS 4 last year. The researchers have created a Mac OS X application called iPhone Tracker to allow users to see the data their devices are collecting about their location.
We may collect information such as occupation, language, zip code, area code, unique device identifier, location, and the time zone where an Apple product is used so that we can better understand customer behavior and improve our products, services, and advertising.
And since most of clicked on the "Accept" button when we set up our iOS devices we unknowingly gave Apple the right track and store our coordinates.
Researchers have the evidence to show how Apple collects the data without you ever knowing it according to Engadget:
A duo of UK researchers have uncovered a potentially worrying (and oddly enough, undocumented) feature in iOS 4: it asks your iPhone to record your location constantly, then timestamps that data and records it for posterity. The trouble with this unsolicited location tracking is that the hidden file that holds the data -- consolidated.db -- is relatively easy to uncover and read, making any desktops you've backed your phone up to and the phone itself even bigger privacy dangers than they would usually be.
This tracking data recorded in a file on your iPhone or 3G iPad can be retrieved by anyone with physical access to your iPhone/iPad or any computer that syncs up with these devices
The good news, according to Pete Warden's iPhone website, is the tracking data is NOT being sent beyond your personal devices, however if someone can access your laptop or any computer you use to sync with your iPhone then the data can be accessed.
Government officials are asking for answers. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., sent Apple's CEO Steve Jobs a letter with nine pointed questions according to Technolog on Msnbc.com. Franken says what we are all wondering:
What is even more worrisome is that this file is stored in an unencrypted format on customers' iPads, iPhones and every computer a customer has used to back up his or her information.
Today show reporter Rosa Golijan on Digital Life admits she initially thought the tracking data collected was no more risky than the files collected on Facebook, that is until she made this discovery:
That map hardly revealed anything that a person who follows me on Twitter or Facebook wouldn't know! But then I picked one of those blue blobs on the map and zoomed in. Suddenly I wasn't laughing anymore — I was too busy watching an eerily accurate replay of my travels around my home.
Having this iPhone tracking file in an unencrypted format and unprotected by any security is a flaw. Or is it? For years wireless providers have tracked cell phone location data to route calls to mobile users. But for a person or company to get access to that data requires additional permission. The iPhone and iPad privacy issue is different. According to LATimes.com:
"Now this information is sitting in plain view, unprotected from the world," Warden and Allen wrote in an online post on the O'Reilly Radar technology site. The data are "available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone or computer," they said.
Allan and Warden have built and made available a Mac OS app called iPhone Tracker. If this app is opened on a Mac OS computer which has been used to sync an iPhone or 3G-enabled iPad, you will be able to view all the location data which has been recorded by your devices.
If you want to disable the tracking feature you have to "jailbreak" your phone which means you will be unlocking the iOS devices so they can run on unauthorized software. And guess what--there's an app for that! The unauthorized Apple app called untrackerd. For the latest methods on "fixing" this glitch, check out Adam Dachis tutorial on LifeHacker.com for The Always Up-to-Date Guide to Jailbreaking Your iPhone, iPod touch, and iPad. Rosa Golijan also gives the inside scoop on how to jailbreak your phone and the risks involved in her Technolog post: How to disable your iPhone's creepy tracking feature.
A few words of caution before you jump in to fix the tracking problem and clean up the data on your iPhone: the Untrackerd app has not been checked for security flaws that might occur.
Another less risky option is to change the settings on your device so when your iPhone or iPad syncs with your laptop the file with your location information is encrypted. Unencrypted files are a security risk. If you want to encrypt the back-ups try this technique from Jennifer Valentino-DeVries at WSJ.com:
Go to the iTunes summary screen when the phone is linked and select "encrypt iPhone backup" under "options." Apple says encrypted backups are indicated by a padlock icon, and a password is required to restore the information to the iPhone.
If you want updates on this this tracking issue and the security breach, you can follow the researchrs who discovered this problem on Twitter:
- Alasdair Allan (firstname.lastname@example.org) @aallan on Twitter
- Pete Warden (email@example.com) @petewarden on Twitter
More information on the tracking issue here:
- Gov't officials want answers to secret iPhone tracking (Technolog on msnnc.com)
- Pete Warden's iPhoneTracker app
- iPhone Tracker: Apple Has Your Permission to Track You
- Maria Schiavocampo on NBC TODAY Show: Your IPhone Is Tracking Your Every Move (Hulu)
- iPhone Tracking Your Every Move–And Here’s A Map To Prove It « CBS Chicago
- Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan talking about how they discovered the existence of the tracking database on the iPhone (YouTube)
- iPhone and iPad security: iPhone, iPad can track a user's location history - latimes.com
Photo of NYC Apple Store by Becky Snyder.