Apple responds to lawmakers’ questions about location data collection


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Apple Inc. answered congressional questions about the ways it collects users’ precise location information from its mobile devices and computers, highlighting users’ ability to opt out of data collection, but acknowledging that it collects and stores ‘batched’ user location data that is not directly associated with a particular identity or device.

Apple’s answers came in a document (embedded below) released Monday by Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Texas), who sent the electronics maker a list of questions last month after The Times published a report pointing to the company’s practice of collecting, storing and sharing the ‘precise,’ ‘real-time geographic location’ of users’ mobile devices.


Apple noted that user location information cannot be collected unless a user has the device’s location-services turned on, and has allowed individual applications such as Google Maps or Yelp to use location data. For many users, these settings are set the first time they use a device and application, but not seen frequently afterward.

Once a user has accepted those terms, the company can collect and store the data. It does so, it says, by collecting ‘batched’ sets of location data from user devices once every 12 hours. Devices with GPS chips -- like all recent-model iPhones -- know their position based on satellite signals, and others can triangulate their location using data about nearby cellular towers and Wi-Fi access points.

Markey and Barton thanked Apple for sharing basic information about their use of location data, but noted that industry practices in this area have been less than transparent.

‘The new challenges and concerns that present themselves with the collection and use of location-based information are particularly disconcerting,’ Barton said in a statement. ‘While I applaud Apple for responding to our questions, I remain concerned about privacy policies that run on for pages and pages.’

When the latest version of the iPhone operating system was released in late June, users found that the list of terms and conditions that contained the updated privacy policy for iPhone and App Store users ran on for more than 40 pages. Apple’s privacy policy can be found here.

In its answers to the congressmen, Apple noted that location data was gathered when consumers use iPhone applications that required a location. The company does not store precise data for its advertising service, iAd -- rather, it converts the device’s precise location into a Zip Code, it said.


[Updated at 12:40 p.m.: In response to questions about the way Apple anonymizes location data, company spokesman Steve Dowling referred The Times back to Apple’s written response to the congressmen.]

-- David Sarno