Apple denies tracking iPhone users, but promises changes

Privacy expert takes exception to Apple's flat denial

Apple today denied that it tracks iPhone and iPad users, saying that "users are confused" about the issue.

In a statement posted on its Web site, Apple defended the practice, but admitted that there were bugs in its software that would be fixed "in the next few weeks" with an update to iOS, the mobile operating system that powers the iPhone and iPad.

A privacy expert applauded Apple's acknowledgement of the problem and its promise to make changes, but questioned the company's flat denial that it never tracked users.

"I'm glad that they are fixing what they call bugs," said Justin Brookman, the director of consumer privacy at the Center for Democracy & Technology (CDT), a Washington D.C.-based advocacy organization. "But I take exception with their strong denial that they track users."

Wednesday's statement was the first official response from the company since British researchers reported last week that iOS concealed an unencrypted file containing thousands of location data entries going back almost a year. The unsecured file was also backed up on users' PCs and Macs during synchronization.

Since then, members of Congress have asked Apple to explain the practice, and at least one lawsuit has been filed in federal court demanding that the company cease the location tracking.

Today, Apple said it does not track users.

"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone," the company said in its statement. "Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so."

The unencrypted file is not a history of the iPhone or iPad user's movements, said Apple, but is instead a subset of a database it maintains of cell tower and Wi-Fi network locations. Apple described the database as "crowd-sourced," meaning that it is compiled from numerous users.

"[This is] a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location ... to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested," said Apple. "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."

The database consists of data submitted to Apple by "tens of millions of iPhones," Apple said.

Apple loads a small portion of that database -- it's too large to store on a smartphone or tablet in its entirety -- on each iPhone and 3G-equipped iPad. "The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone's location," said Apple.

Although the company did not admit it tracked users, it did own up to what it called "bugs" in its current software.

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