Apple has finally addressed complaints that its mobile devices including the iPhone and iPad are tracking users by recording cellular tower triangulation data. The company issued a Q&A document to explain exactly what's happening on the devices they manufacture and how they plan to remedy the issues that even some members of Congress have expressed concerns over.
Apple is already facing lawsuits over the tracking issue, which was revealed by security researchers. Although individual devices have locally stored logs of location data going back as far as the installation of iOS 4.0, Apple insists that the company can't track individuals as any data it collects is anonymous and encrypted. According to the Q&A document, the purpose of these transmissions is to build better location based services and individual iPhones are never tracked at all.
When it comes to the detailed, unencrypted location logs saved to iOS devices and copied to computers during the backup and sync process, Apple explains that these files are a subset of a crowd-sourced database of location information. The subset relevant to your iPhone's location is downloaded and used to quickly determine your location by assisting the GPS. Apple calls the storage of this cache beyond seven days a bug, and also refers to the storage of this data while Location Services is switched off in the settings as a bug.
So now that the bugs have been identified, Apple plans to fix them. Specifically, the company will release a free iOS update that will:
- reduce the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone (to seven days or less)
- stop backing up this cache to your computer via iTunes
- delete the cache entirely when Location Services is turned OFF
Apple plans to encrypt the cache on the iPhone in the next major iOS firmware update as well. Whether this is too little, too late remains to be seen for the crowd suing Apple. In the meantime, it seems that the iOS tracking threat to privacy is not nearly as threatening as first believed. Once Apple provides corrections to these oversights in their operating system, there will be even less reason to be up in arms over the issue.