Apple cites bugs, user confusion in explanation of iPhone location data

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Breaking nearly a week of silence on why its iPhones and iPads stored up to a year of specific location data, Apple Inc. on Wednesday denied that the devices were tracking users but noted that it had ‘uncovered’ bugs that resulted in too much location data being kept on the phones.

Apple said it stored the data, which first received wide attention last week, on the devices to enable them to quickly provide location-based services, such as map directions. It is not a precise log of users’ whereabouts, the company said, but a database of nearby WiFi networks and cell towers that can help the phone calculate routes and nearby destinations.


‘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 soundbite,’ the company said in an emailed statement. ‘Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.’

In an explanation that was somewhat complex itself, the company said that the many thousands of location data points kept on the phone were ‘a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone.’ In other words, Apple is sending location data about your surroundings to your phone, rather than your phone sending that data to Apple.

Apple’s response followed a growing chorus of questions from U.S. and international officials about the nature of the location data file, reflecting increasing concern about digital privacy issues.

The company emphasized that the data were not a user’s exact, real-time location, but an amalgam of WiFi access points and cell-tower data, ‘which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone.’

The company, however, did not highlight that many WiFi access points can be much closer, including in specific rooms in users’ homes and offices. And as cellular networks have become larger and more sophisticated, companies have built many more towers so that each one can cover a smaller area more effectively.

Experts have said that WiFi and cell-tower location data may soon be as specific as the highly precise GPS satellite data.


Apple said it would fix two issues with the way the data was stored, each of which it called a ‘bug.’ An upcoming version of its mobile software, iOS, would store only about seven days of location data on the phone, rather than a year’s worth. And the phones will not store the data after users have turned off ‘Location Services,’ as is now the case.

That software update would come sometime in the next few weeks, the company said.


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-- David Sarno