Apple denies tracking iPhone users, but promises changes

Privacy expert takes exception to Apple's flat denial

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Rather than retain months of location data in the unencrypted file, it said seven days worth of information would be sufficient to pinpoint the iPhone's location. It also said that the data should not be present on the device if the owner had disabled all location services, and said it would not only encrypt the file on the iPhone and iPad, but stop backing up that data to users' personal computers.

Some of those changes will take place "in the next few weeks," Apple said, when it updates iOS to reduce the size of the database, eliminate the backup and delete the data when location services are turned off.

Apple promised to encrypt the file on iPhones and iPads with the "next major iOS software release," which would presumably be iOS 5. Apple has not announced a release date for iOS 5, but will likely set a timetable either at its annual developers conference in early June, or shortly after.

In its statement, Apple also took a little-disguised shot at the media coverage of the issue, and blamed the controversy on confused users and its failure to educate customers.

"Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a sound bite," argued Apple. "Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date."

Brookman supported Apple's decision to modify its location practice, but didn't buy the argument that the company never tracks users.

"They say that they're not tracking users' locations, and although [the data] may not show exactly where I am or where I've been, it shows a very strong approximation," said Brookman.

"The fact that the log is there does raise legitimate privacy concerns," Brookman continued. "It could be subpoenaed by the government, or even by a divorce attorney, to determine what part of town you were in."

Brookman said that Apple could soothe privacy concerns by giving users more control over what data is retained. "There may be some users who want to turn this off without disabling all location services," he said.

From Brookman's point of view, Apple essentially admitted to mistakes by promising bug fixes. "They're acknowledging problems, even though they don't say as much, by saying that they'll fix things," he said.

In the end, however, Brookman's take on Apple's response was more positive than negative.

"There are questions why this went on so long," Brookman said, noting that digital forensics experts have known about and reported on the database since mid-2010. "But they're limiting [the database] to just seven days, which is a strong improvement."

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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