iPhone

Being tracked by your iPhone: Do you care?

Researchers point out a little known file on the iPhone that tracks and stores your exact movements, doesn't offer an opt-in, and doesn't encrypt the data. Does having your every move tracked by your iPhone spook you, or is it the new normal?

In a story I first saw on ReadWriteWeb.com, "Your iPhone Is Tracking Your Every Move," by Audrey Watters, I learned that researchers have found a little file called "consolidated.db" on the iPhone that collects rather detailed tracking information on your movements:

The file contains longitude and latitude data, recording the phone's coordinates, along with a timestamp. This recording process seems to have started with Apple's iOS 4 update, which means that there could be almost a year's worth of location data stored - literally hundreds of thousands of data points.

While many people willingly have their locations made known on devices for an array of applications and social networking purposes, there are factors that make the iPhone's data collection seem a little more ominous to some. First,  there is no "opt-in" choice presented to the user, and perhaps, most troubling, the data is stored unencrypted and unprotected, and you can't delete the file.

ZDNet's Larry Dignan followed up on this news with a list of reasons why he met the story with a "a yawn":

  • Why? People allow their every move to be tracked anyway-willingly.
  • I happen to have GPS set up on my Android device. I have no idea what Google is keeping on me. Cue up the "Dignan you idiot" talkbacks.
  • I also know that a friend happened to be at Grand Central Station this morning because he checked in on FourSquare and it was blasted to his Twitter feed.
  • Folks use Google Latitude.
  • MobileMe tracks you too.

Dignan acknowledges that there is the issue of the no opt-in, but suggests that it is something Apple fans would opt-in to anyway. If you want to track this story further, the researchers who found the file are presenting their findings today at the Where 2.0 Conference.

What do you think of this report? Is it a big deal or not? Have we grown so desensitized to the sense that privacy exists anymore that being tracked down to your last foot traveled is immaterial? If you own an iPhone, what steps will you take, if any? Fire away!

About

Selena has been at TechRepublic since 2002. She is currently a Senior Editor with a background in technical writing, editing, and research. She edits Data Center, Linux and Open Source, Apple in the Enterprise, The Enterprise Cloud, Web Designer, and...

113 comments
yooper
yooper

There's so much of modern technology that does nothing really except make our lives miserable. It's not the technology, but the people behind it. I know this sounds extreme, but I wouldn't be surprised in 10 - 20 years every new born will be implanted with the tracking device under the guise of "what if he/she is abducted??" we'll be able to find them right way, etc. And the very sad part is, I think there will be a good amount of people who will come to think that this is a "good" idea and think nothing of it. I have nothing to hide as well, but there's a lot of people and organisations that want to hurt you and ruin your life so you need to be very careful of the most mundane ideas you have or talk about.

imjeeves
imjeeves

I'm with Larry Dignan on this one. I have an iPhone and I choose to utilize the location awareness services of Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, etc etc. Why should I care that Apple puts a file on my phone that tracks my every move? Now, I've heard the argument that, if someone was to get my phone, they could use the file and find out where I live, where I work, etc. Well if they had my phone, they could just look in my contacts and find all of that sort of information. Of course, I utilize the hardware encryption and complex passwords and even force my device to wipe itself if too many incorrect passcodes are entered. So really, if you're worried about being tracked, just turn off location services. It's not that complicated.

techrepublic
techrepublic

Another reason, besides: 1. Price 2. Planned obsolescence (we're SUCH a throw-away society) 3. Limited choice of service providers (at least we're not stuck with just AT&T any more)

DHOLYER
DHOLYER

I forget who the idea creator is or was. As far as I recall the idea was thought up during the Gemini program. who knows how fast the ARMY grabbed the idea. And I think the 24 geosynchronous Satellite system would give the world total coverage, which came from Arthur C.Clarke, who invented the idea of a satellite.

viProCon
viProCon

All you people who say "well we're always tracked anyway so why worry", what you clearly don't understand is that the more you give up, the more _somebody_ will take away from you. Today it's "well, gee, my iPhone can send tracking data to any authoritative agency that runs a GPS satelite", but tomorrow it's something even more invasive. As soon as you give up your first line of defence in privacy (that being your freedom to choose), then you open the door for the next level of privacy invasion, whatever that may be. It really doesn't take much of an imagination to start to see where things can go from here if everybody's movements, 24x7, were tracked. And that's just with legitimate government agencies, large marketing firms, and such. But also consider how relatively easy it has been to hack just about every mobile device ever made (good luck ever finding anybody that can claim their device is hack-proof). One has to wonder how gullible the general public is about the safety of their privacy. As usual, ignorance prevails and provides the safety blanket for 99.9% of the populace.

jkameleon
jkameleon

First off- having nothing to hide is just an illusion. In reality, you should hide from the law as much as possible. There is no way you could know all the tens of thousands of laws & regulations out there. Rest assured, that whatever you do, you violate at least ten laws per minute. Even if you somehow manage to abide the law, you should hide anyway, because whatever the police knows about you, mafia knows as well. One bad cop is enough, and there is always one.

DHOLYER
DHOLYER
tutor4pc
tutor4pc

The government is paranoid. They track anything and everything. It should be my choice to opt in or not. Or am a slave who is supposed to have no mind or opinion? If everyone eventually can follow my whereabouts I might as well post my income statement some public place or my medical history. Big brother is watching you. That's one of the reasons why I do not buy apple products and I switch my phone off when I know I will not need it for a while.

AllanMitch
AllanMitch

It's amazing that the Big Brother surveillance described in "1984" is rapidly becoming a reality and we like those in the book are simply accepting it.

nbsc
nbsc

How about showing the totals of each vote cumulatively? In other words show how many + votes are cast & how many - votes are cast? It would accomplish two interesting things. 1st, it would allow us to see how the votes were cast as to the positive & to the negative, rather than just the outcome after they cancel each other out. 2ndly, it would allow readers to see the total number of votes cast. A ballot isn't of much use if you can't determine anything but the final result, particularly if the results end in a 0 to 0 tie. jmk

wlportwashington
wlportwashington

This is another facet of how Big Brother wants to keep an eye on us. I value my privacy a right given to us by the very fact of being an American. With the amount of data the Big Brother can or does collect is there really time to analyze any of it? But in any case we are monitored way too much.

Jamoena
Jamoena

It's just a matter of time before you all start to realise that they heve been doing this since the first GPS module was installed in any device. So welcome to the age where we no longer need chips in our body's to be watched by the all seeing eye

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

If you don't want to be tracked, turn off GPS, activate Airplane Mode and then turn off the phone. Only turn on the phone and deactivate Airplane Mode when you need to. Cell Phone companies have been tracking our every move for years, even before the invention of the smartphone. The ability to be tracked is the tradeoff for being able to make calls from anywhere at anytime. The Government can request cell phone access coordinates from the phone companies, and upon request, phone companies are required to provide them. Now, thanks to Apple, consumers have access to their own access coordinates and are finally able to see what the Cell Phone companies record regarding their whereabouts. Kudos to Apple. Kudos to the guys at http://petewarden.github.com/iPhoneTracker/ for writing the app so that people can view this data. Bravo. Now, there needs to be a new law that states that coordinate tracking information from a customer's own mobile device may only be used by that customer, and if the device changes ownership, that data must be wiped.

oldmicro
oldmicro

I guess that "1984" is no longer required reading. The simple fact that our own Government considers us enemies, and can track our movements; and it still is NO PROBLEM. Twelve American Citizens are currently on the Federal Assassination List, and this is NO PROBLEM. Oh no our government would never use this information for targeting. READ THE BOOK!

tony
tony

What happens when users, as they surely do, keep GPS switched off most of the time to conserve battery. I certainly do this on Android. Does it still triangulate your position between cell masts, often to 50 yards or less, as Google Maps does even with GPS out?

adornoe
adornoe

The U.S. government has, for decades, had regulations for cigarette manufacturers to include a warning on their cigarette packs that says "smoking causes cancer". With this invasion of privacy, and that's exactly what it is, there should be a warning on device packaging that warns the purchaser that, the device "INCLUDES TRACKING hardware and software" which will record your every move and your every conversation and your every text. If a product is sold without the warning, then that product would be in violation of the 4th amendment, which stipulates: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. The iPhone and any other device with similar capabilities, is in direct violation of the 4th amendment, and it's presuming that, people won't mind being tracked.

pmansbach
pmansbach

An acquaintance of mine was mugged and his iPhone was taken. Because of the tracking capability, the police recovered the phone and arrested the mugger. But I don't see the need to store 6 months of data.

Karlh64
Karlh64

Do you really want some app that your kids download to broadcast their location with your and their knowledge? There are enough creeps out there that are tech savvy enough to create the app and do we really want that. Adults have stalkers too and this can be a real security issue.

pauln1
pauln1

Personally...I believe you opted in when you payed Uncle Stevie for his smart phone and agreed to the license agreement to use it! :-)

baygal109
baygal109

being just a simple peasant i don't think big brother would be the leats bit i nterested in tracking me, and since i am part of the masses, why should we care. However if i was a politicial activist ins ome repressive country like China, i'd be pretty scared by now! No wait, i'd just ditch my iphone, get a basic mobile and geta payg sim and not register it!

dvr666
dvr666

Consider the person who is having a sorted affair, someone now knows where that person has been and for how long. Consider the shopping you do, someone now knows where you've been and how long you spent at each point. From this, develop a trend for where you go and sell the info to someone and MORE SPAM in your Mail Box! One of the main reason I've made sure my GPS system is not working on my phone. My business is my business, no one else's. In the case of the Android, I don't use the required "eMail Account", sure I created one to get the phone, I just don't use it for anything. I like being "off the radar!"

rbrown3012
rbrown3012

Ok, keeping the last known coordinate might enable your GPS chip to locate you faster the next time you ask it to but that is/should be the only thing stored and stored in the GPS's chips memory. It should not be necessary to store it in an external file and for sure a database of your GPS coordinates should be an opt in situation. There are other questions that need to be answered such as how often is this file updated, how many coordinates does / will it store. If it stores a reading once a day, that may not be an issue. If it stores readings every 3 minutes, thats much more significant. Does the controlling software continually monitor your GPS position and only record new ones if you move more than X number of feet. Apple really needs to make this information public and provide an opt out. Yes law enforcement and others can track your phone but only if its turned on! That brings to mind, when I turn my iPhone off, is it really off??? Or is it just in a sleep mode with programs still running???

rrichards
rrichards

Do I want to be tracked without my knowledge or consent? NO!!! If there's a way to opt out of being tracked - sign me up.

linda-g
linda-g

Thanks Selena Frye for showing me this. Do I care, yes I do! I am not a number I am a free person, well at least I thought I was till I asked the questions about OS, ISP, web browsers and mobile phone security. From the feedback I have realised there is very little we can do to stop the big boys, cannot do anything about DPI etc. I would like to ask the question is all this spying stuff co-ordinated via the political, commercial and criminal heads into one global BIG Brother?

elliotkr
elliotkr

I have nothing to hide from the government, Apple, my spouse or anyone else... if someone wants to hack into my computer and look up my coordinates for the last 4 years that I've owned an iPhone... more power to ya... you'll see a lot of commute time and an occasional road trip to a concert.

mcswan454
mcswan454

Go home. Sit in a darkened room with the shades drawn. No, change that, it will cause suspicion. Actually, you'll have to leave the house every once in a while or THAT will will draw suspicions. And those cameras you see everywhere? Whether you have a smartphone or not, "THEY" know where you are. Or hadn't you noticed those cameras on your local ATM? They take pics every so many seconds. Ever watch some of the TV shows where the use of mounted cameras help to solve cases? If you think you've much in the way of privacy anymore, you're sadly mistaken. And any attempts to become a recluse, IF someone is actively watching you, will only draw more attention. Live your life as if you're on the front page of The New York Times. Why? Because you ARE. It'll come to light when you do the thing you don't wish to be caught for. Everyday, each of us does enough suspicious-looking things, we could be charged with a crime by an unscrupulous individual or agency. So get over yourselves and live your life. M.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

One of the many reasons why I DON'T have an iPhone. ;-)

sefedor
sefedor

I may have it wrong, but my understanding from the article I read on this site that the tracking file stays on the iPhone and is then backed up when syncing with your PC. No one is tracking you except you on your own phone, apart from the obvious Apps that ask you to transmit your location. This file is not transmitted to Apple or anyone else.

lance_peterson
lance_peterson

in reading some of the comments, it seems to me, that if yyou are afraid if government developep systems gone public sector, don't buty the technology. You can't have your cake and eat it to. Everything comes at a price and I don't mean money(. If your willing to pay it, live with it. If not, go buy something else that matches your wants or... opt out. The biggest issue here is that customers soould be informed about what they are getting,. Apple should have let users know. How many times has MS pulled the same "non-disclosure" tactics and gottemn away with it. Both give the industry a black eye.

stupid user name
stupid user name

I will NEVER buy an iPhone until/unless this is changed.

mad steve
mad steve

[... This means that Apple, and other companies who track you on your iPhone or have access to data on your smartphone harddrive, will be violating European law after next month! ...] But they don't plant a cookie, so new cookie laws make no difference at all. This "tracking" has absolutely nothing to do with cookies. Cookie "tracking" is to do with recording what websites you visit - not the physical location of your equipment.

lance_peterson
lance_peterson

Any chance this tracking is set up for the purpose of helping responders find you in an emergency if your iphone is on? Of course it could be used for other things, but our world, for all it's paramnoia is still base ion trust and the majority (fortunately) are still trustworthy. I think Apple is.Now- if third parties, other than first responder can us this data, that could be an issue.

Al_nyc
Al_nyc

How quickly people forget that this type of data can be used against you even when you do nothing wrong. If I owned an iphone I would demand a full refund of purchase price and opt out of any contract if they could not turn that off immediately.

bboyd
bboyd

I would place the request more at the heels of the navy since radio towers are hard to place at sea. However the system is administered by Space command in the USAF. The make corrections to keep the system optimized as needed. They are also the ones who invented the system to degrade its performance for non-military applications. On a side note, GPS corrects for and thus on a practical case proves Einsteins General and Special relativity cases. First correcting for the relativistic effects of the velocity and difference in potential due to earths gravity field.

viProCon
viProCon

Just a quick followup to what I just said, ignorance is what we all have to some degree including myself, but I would argue that it's true that if we all were truely aware of just how much we're losing day after day in terms of privacy, we might actually try to stop it. I'm certain that if more people understood some of the realities, they'd be less willing allow it.

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

All that is needed is some convenient, coincidental, circumstantial evidence. Like being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Proving you were there is all that they need to hold you or give you a court date. Even if not convicted it could ruin your life.

linda-g
linda-g

I agree, the more I find out the more I see it's happening now. Who is Big Brother with its political, commercial and criminal faces. Any idea or is it - oops! is that room 101 :(

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

because it is in the device. The mugger could go to all the locations in the file for the last 24 hours and easily find your house and your workplace. This situation could become far more terrifying. Also, the police don't use the file on the phone to find you. They get the information from the service provider live. Not old information on the device that they haven't yet found.

elliotkr
elliotkr

Just like McSwan said in his comment... stay in your room. Turn out the lights, move off the grid to a totally self-sufficient house... discontinue all your credit cards... your cell phone... pay off all your debts and disappear from the US... that's the only way you can "opt out" of being tracked. Its the world we live in.

bboyd
bboyd

Any app with a stray code line or two could send it to a second site and analyze it. Given that the gps data from any smart phone can be forced out of it by EMS its arguable if this is an issue. I think it is given the fact that the EMS-GPS location call has some small amount of security. Just puts more trust on your apps. Is angry birds selling location data to private investigators looking for cheating spouses?

Tik-Tok
Tik-Tok

See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enhanced_9-1-1 (scroll down to "Wireless enhanced 911 \ Requirements") However, there is no legitimate reason for location information to be cached and stored (and transmitted? /tinfoilhat) without the user's explicit opt-in.

Vulpinemac
Vulpinemac

How quickly people forget this type of data can be used for your benefit. Personally, I think it's a good idea.

bboyd
bboyd

I doubt this is limited to just them or even just to GPS data file. Maybe there is a file with tower signal strengths, call histories and file hashes.

jasondlnd
jasondlnd

With Mobile Me, you can remotely lock or even completely wipe your iPhone of all of its data if you think you will never see it again. This can be done from any web browser that can access the Mobile Me site. Mobile Me really needs to come standard with iPhones...there is a 60 day trial period, though that you can sign up for on the Mobile Me website.

rbrown3012
rbrown3012

I'm not doubting you but can you elaborate on how you know how many and the frequency?? "It tracks thousands ....with high frequency" is more than a bit vague. If you have specific knowledge then enlighten us. Thanks

Spitfire_Sysop
Spitfire_Sysop

This is America. We do not have to roll over for every stupid invasion in to our lives. Do not be a defeatist worm. Can we ever get back all the privacy we have lost so far? I doubt it but we sure have the right to fight back and change things... like this. We can have this file removed. Will that stop you from being tracked? No but it will eliminate your location history from the device in your pocket. Not too much to ask.

pgit
pgit

Why hasn't the industry touted this process? Where are the apps that use this data 'for your benefit?' Apple issued a statement in response to this issue, they told it like it is: government required all manufacturers to collect and provide this data. I don't know about you all but I haven't seen much 'benefit' in even having government, along the course of my lifetime... =)

tutor4pc
tutor4pc

Since when is anyone thinking of my benefit? You must be naive.

SKDTech
SKDTech

In the words of some famous person I can't recall atm "trust but verify". I don't think any companies are evil and nefarious, but I also realize that their goals are not the same as mine. The first priority of a company is to make a profit, everything else is a means to achieve that end.

apotheon
apotheon

You work in PR. Interesting.

apotheon
apotheon

> I don't know about you all but I haven't seen much 'benefit' in even having government, along the course of my lifetime... =) No need to sugar-coat it.

apotheon
apotheon

I'm constantly shocked by the prevalence of the belief in a conspiracy that has insinuated itself into all our lives -- corporatists and government officials colluding to work for the benefit of the little guy. How is it people buy into conspiracy theories like that?

pgit
pgit

That's probably where it got popularized, ironically in context of arms reduction talks with the Russians.. The post you were replying to implied this tracking is something the companies came up with, that they seek to leverage to their advantage. Not true. Government required this capability be in every cell phone a long while back.

apotheon
apotheon

Wow -- who would say such a thing? In all seriousness, though, I think "trust but verify" comes from an old Russian proverb.

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