Apple responds to location data controversy

By Jonny Evans

Apple [AAPL] has issued an official company statement on the location data controversy. The company denies spying on users, promising a software update to address the situation. The company today also confirmed it will ship white model iPhones internationally from tomorrow -- even as carrier discounts on iPhone 4 begin and rumors of quad-core models emerge.

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"Hard to communicate in a soundbite"

In a Q&A document on Apple's Website, the company addresses many of the concerns surrounding the location data collection problem. "Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date," the company stressed.

The statement stresses that Apple does not track the location of a user's iPhone, that the company has never done so and "has no plans to ever do so."

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All data transmitted to Apple is anonymized and encrypted so it cannot be tied to a device or a device owner, the company adds.

Here's a key statement from the Q&A document

Why is my iPhone logging my location?

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone's location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

Apple intends releasing a iOS update soon. This will reduce the size of the database kept on the device and will delete the location information completely when a user chooses to switch off Location Services.

Private dancers

Apple CEO Steve Jobs last week responded to questions on the location data collection problem with a denial that the company tracks anyone, adding, "the information circulating around is false".

Appearing at D:All Things Digital last year, Jobs stressed his company's user-focused approach to data privacy:

"We've always had a very different view of privacy than some of our colleagues in the Valley. We take privacy extremely seriously. As an example, we worry a lot about location in phones. And we worry that some 14-year-old is going to get stalked and something terrible is going to happen because of our phone," he said.

Jobs later confirmed Apple will testify before Congress in a hearing in response to the controversy, according to an interview with All Things Digital. "I think Apple will be testifying," Jobs said. "They have asked us to come and we will honor their request of course."

What is interesting is the slant of the reports on these matters. Most reports seemingly focus on Apple and its collection of such data, while conveniently ignoring that Android devices also gather such data -- and we've seen no public response on this from Google yet, so go figure....

Apple believes strongly in security and privacy

Here's Apple's approach, as defined in the statement:

"Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important?

"Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy."

I'd like to imagine that after a week's Apple-focused reporting of the problem, the news media may now choose to pursue other players in the smartphone business to get them to go public with statements on the value of user privacy.

I'd be particularly interested in Google's approach -- after all, it isn't long since that company's former CEO said, "If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place."

That statement cuts both ways, Google also needs to ensure that it keeps its own privacy house in order.

The white iPhone

Apple has previously hinted that white model iPhones were delayed due to problems manufacturing the devices. The problem's solved, and now the white model will appear in 28 countries (including the US and UK) tomorrow.

"The white iPhone 4 has finally arrived and it's beautiful," said Philip Schiller, Apple's senior vice president of Worldwide Product Marketing. "We appreciate everyone who has waited patiently while we've worked to get every detail right."

Finally, it seems we may get a quad-core iPhone, perhaps as soon as next year. UK technology magazine, T3, has spoken with games developer Miles Jacobson.

Jacobson predicts that the iPad 3 will come equipped with a quad core A6 processor with graphics to rival the Nvidia 8700 chipsets. And as every Apple-watcher knows, where iPad goes, iPhone follows. So you can expect even more graphics performance in future iPhones, even while Apple and its carriers begin offering strategic price cuts on iPhone 4 models in some territories.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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