Apple vs. Android location tracking: Time for some truth

By JR Raphael

Apple vs. Android Location Tracking

Smartphone location tracking is stirring up quite the controversy right now. It's no surprise: A report issued last week alerted us to the fact that Apple's iPhones and iPads are quietly recording users' locations and saving the data to unencrypted files. The files live on the devices and are also copied over to PCs during iTunes synchronization. They're apparently even preserved and restored if a user migrates to a new device.

The problem here isn't simply that the gadgets are accessing location data, of course; most of us know that that's a possibility if we choose to use location-based smartphone services. The problem is that Apple's devices appear to be collecting and storing this info -- lots of it -- in ways users aren't aware of. And, even more concerning, iPhones and iPads are logging the data even when users have opted out of location tracking, according to an investigation published by The Wall Street Journal.

So far, Apple has yet to offer any official explanation. An email said to be from Steve Jobs did pop up on a Mac rumor site, but -- keeping with Steve Jobs email tradition -- it doesn't say much. The message reportedly came in response to a user who asked about the iPhone's location-logging practices. The user said he was thinking of switching to an Android phone since those devices "don't track" their owners.

"Oh yes they do," the response attributed to Jobs reads. "We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false."

Hang on, though: Jobs has made misleading and just plain wrong statements before. Provided that this latest email did actually come from him, it looks like he's done it again.

Smartphone Location Tracking: Apple vs. Android

First, to address the Apple part of the equation, remember that written statements are often a game of semantics. Apple may not be actively accessing any of the user location data its gizmos are collecting -- and thus may not technically be "tracking" anyone -- but its iPhones and iPads are compiling loads of info, regardless of a user's opt-out preference, and storing it in multiple places. Whatever the reason, that alone is enough to give anyone a case of the heebie-jeebies.

So what about Android phones and the allegation that they're secretly tracking your every move? Despite the baseless claim, there's simply no evidence of any such underhanded activity. When you first set up an Android phone, the operating system asks you whether you want to allow the device to determine your location by Wi-Fi and/or mobile networks. If you select yes, a dialog box lets you know that utilizing that feature will "allow Google's location service to collect anonymous data" while your device is powered on. You have to explicitly tap a box labeled "Agree" in order for the feature to be activated.

An independent test by The Wall Street Journal confirms that the resulting transmissions are, in fact, anonymized; the only unique info included with the data is a code tied to the device (which has no user-specific identifying properties). The code is set during the device's initial configuration and altered anytime a factory reset is performed.

As far as local storage, Android phones do keep a cache of user location data -- but, as researchers have demonstrated, it's a true limited cache as opposed to the comprehensive record created by iOS. The Android cache is visible only via administrator access. The cache contains only a user's most recent location entries, with older entries being deleted as new ones arrive. What's more, the cache is stored only on the phone itself and not synced with PCs or transferred to new devices. And if you opt out of Android's Wi-Fi location service, the cache is not maintained.

Even if you're among those who feel location history is nothing to worry about,

Android Power Twitter

you have a right to know what kind of info your phone is collecting and compiling. Here's hoping Apple comes forward with a clear and honest explanation of what data its devices are logging and lets its users decide whether their info is included.

It's a matter of principle -- and, with the ever-increasing role mobile technology plays in our lives, it's a precedent we can't afford to ignore.

JR Raphael writes about smartphones and other tasty technology. You can find him on both Facebook and Twitter.

Article copyright 2011 JR Raphael. All rights reserved.

FREE Computerworld Insider Guide: Five IT certifications that won’t break you
Join the discussion
Be the first to comment on this article. Our Commenting Policies