Following the recent over-hyped “location tracking scandal“, Apple has released iOS 4.3.3 which fixes bugs in the Location Services on iPhone and iPad devices that caused them to store excessive location information. As detailed by Apple’s Q&A on Location Data, the location data stored on iOS devices (and backed up by iTunes) are merely a subset of Apple’s crowd-sourced location database of Wifi hotspots and cell towers, used to facilitate Location Services when GPS is unavailable or unreliable. The bugs were causing iOS to download this location cache even if Location Services were turned off, and to store the cache indefinitely, instead of being regularly purged.
This update contains changes to the iOS crowd-sourced location database cache including:
- Reduces the size of the cache
- No longer backs the cache up to iTunes
- Deletes the cache entirely when Location Services is turned off
It’s nice to see Apple resolve this issue so swiftly, and these changes will help improve the privacy of iPhone and iPad users, regardless of whether they use Location Services. The only thing I would have added if I were Apple, is the ability for the user to clear the location cache in the device settings. It’s a button that could be easily added in Settings > Location Services. Just sayin’!
Seeing as I cover OSX/iOS security and privacy, I figured it’s about time I weighed in on this whole iPhone/iPad tracking ‘scandal’. I have to admit I was surprised when I first heard of the iPhone storing location data, especially that it does so with Location Services turned off. This issue is not new, however, and was described in a fair amount of depth by Alex Levinson several months ago. What has made it so popular this month is the release of the iPhoneTracker app, developed by Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan, that creates a visual map of your visited locations. I promptly tested iPhoneTracker, and sure enough it showed a bunch of areas that I’d visited. Upon closer inspection, however, I noticed that it didn’t specifically geolocate me in two places where I’d spent a lot of time; namely home and work. On top of that, there were a number of locations I’d never even been to.
[Updated] According to the info recently published by Apple, this stored location data is not the location of the iPhone itself, but rather a subset of crowd-sourced location information for local cell towers and wifi networks, which is only used to rapidly provide the user with location information. Full details at the bottom of this post. Read more