Apple’s iPhone tracks everywhere you go; stores the info in secret file on the device

“Security researchers have discovered that Apple’s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised,” Charles Arthur reports for The Guardian. “The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.”

“For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010,” Arthur reports. “‘Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been,’ said Pete Warden, one of the researchers.”

“Only the iPhone records the user’s location in this way, say Warden and Alasdair Allan, the data scientists who discovered the file and are presenting their findings at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco on Wednesday,” Arthur reports. “‘Alasdair has looked for similar tracking code in [Google’s] Android phones and couldn’t find any,’ said Warden. ‘We haven’t come across any instances of other phone manufacturers doing this.'”

“Warden and Allan point out that the file is moved onto new devices when an old one is replaced: ‘Apple might have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s our specualtion. The fact that [the file] is transferred across [to a new iPhone or iPad] when you migrate is evidence that the data-gathering isn’t accidental.’ But they said it does not seem to be transmitted to Apple itself,” Arthur reports. “Warden and Allan have set up a web page which answers questions about the file, and created a simple downloadable application to let Apple users check for themselves what location data the phone is retaining. The Guardian has confirmed that 3G-enabled devices including the iPad also retain the data and copy it to the owner’s computer.”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: All GPS-enabled smartphones track your every move (you can turn off GPS on your iOS devices in Settings); what’s different here is that the file isn’t just living in your carrier’s database, but also in your iOs device. Apple should explain why they are collecting this information and storing it on iOS devices. Furthermore, Apple should first ask users if such tracking should allowed or not, regardless of whether GPS is enabled.

[Thanks to MacDailyNews readers too numerous to mention individually for the heads up.]

92 Comments

  1. So… how many of you afraid to be tracked people just downloaded an application from someone you likely haven’t heard of before today? As “practical” threats go, which one do you think is actually greater?

  2. So what if they track me. I don’t go anywhere I shouldn’t, I don’t speed. I am not ashamed of what I do. Why do you Yankees think you have to hide under the rocks with the slime?

    1. Wow… name calling. That’s taking a moral high road for certain.

      Since you used the term Yankees, I will presume you are not a citizen of the U.S.

      It’s not a matter of hiding. It’s a matter of what I do is not one’s business, no matter who they are or how much they may want to know what I do.

      It’s called privacy.

    2. It’s a little thing called ‘principle’. Just because I have nothing to be ashamed of, does not mean that I have to be ok with my every move being recorded for all posterity. There’s more harm than good that can come from that.

      Its amazingly simple, I’m sure you can get it if you really give it some thought.

  3. “Hi Rachel, it’s El Tigre here. You may soon get a call from my wife because my iPhone has been secretly tracking all my movements for the last one year. It even shows a waveform pattern that precisely records every move we made when we were doing the nasty all those times. I just hope she mistakes that for my regular errant swing on the golf course. If she does call you, just blame Apple OK?”

  4. Not terribly accurate … shows me in locations over a hundred miles away from where I really was. I think all you can figure out from this is areas you’ve been to. It isn’t showing the location of the phone, it’s showing the location of cell towers that have been accessed by the phone. Guessing there is some other data there that could be used by cell carriers to tweak towers for better service.
    I suppose if it’s a company phone and your boss asks for it back to see if you took a side trip on company time might be a problem … better turn it off if your stealing company time ….

    1. You are not correct. Apple also download any IPHONE user Photos and personal information stored on any apple device when you sync your apple device to your computer. Any information that is downloaded to the user computer is also transmitted and stored on Apple server without the user knowledge or consent, That includes any personal information and photos. That is an invation of the user privacy. private photos should not be downlaoded by Apple to their servers.

  5. The real problem I think is that this will get blown way out of proportion and it will hurt my AAPL shares just when they were starting to turn back up again. Go over to CNET or almost any other sites discussing this and you can see it is going to be totally misunderstood and end up as a lot of bad PR just like the antenna did. Not good, my Android owning buddies will be giving me crap I am sure.

  6. Is this story true? Or has it been fabricated or blown out of proportion? Sometimes MDN and MDN readers react prematurely. Let the dust settle a bit and see if these claims of a persistent location tracking file are substantiated. If so, then find out why. It could be as simple as a log file for GPS performance testing that Apple coders should have disabled before the software was released for public distribution. If it turns out to have been intentional, then I’ll get pissed off along with everyone else. Until then…relax a little.

    1. I agree. Seems like a storm in a teacup. Unless I am some kind of undercover dude, I would actually welcome my iPhone keeping track of which areas I’ve been to. Suppose something bad happens to me, and my iPhone is found, I’d want the cops to be able to track my movements – and the further back they track, the better the chances of them putting together a better investigation. At any rate, it’s YOUR iPhone that’s keeping track of you. It’s your buddy, not some hostile device planted on you by some Big Brother. Your info, your phone, your computer – what’s the problem?

  7. I find it interesting that this file only exists after upgrading from one iPhone to another. It makes me wonder if it’s similar to the “Previous System” folder when upgrading Mac OS. The previous system folder is retained as a backup database to ensure critical info isn’t lost and enables the system to be accurately restored if a failure occurs.

  8. Not even close, the data that is on the iPhone.
    Looks indeed like it just captures some sort of location information, but I am sure that there are many locations on the list where my iPhone, i am a new iPhone user, never has been.
    Having that said, There is also a set of locations where my iPhone has been, and they are not captured in the overview.

    Still a strange story, but to me it looks like the iPhone is just capturing cellphone towers to speed uo the connection, and to improve the quality while you’re moving around.

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