Apple releases Q&A on Location Data: ‘Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone’

Apple today has released the following “Q&A on Location Data.” Here it is, verbatim:

Apple would like to respond to the questions we have recently received about the gathering and use of location information by our devices.

1. Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
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. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.

3. Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).

5. Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?
This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.

7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?
It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).

8. What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

9. Does Apple currently provide any data collected from iPhones to third parties?
We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them).

10. Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important?
Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.

Software Update
Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:
• reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
• ceases backing up this cache, and
• deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

Source: Apple Inc.

Related articles:
U.S. Senate Democrat Franken to hold mobile privacy hearing; Apple, Google summoned – April 26, 2011
Illinois Attorney General Madigan requests meeting with Apple, Google – April 25, 2011
Apple sued for privacy invasion, computer fraud over iOS location data collection, storage – April 25, 2011
Steve Jobs on iOS location tracking: We don’t track anyone, but Droid does – April 25, 2011
Apple iPhone collects location info even when location services are turned off by user – April 25, 2011
Android phones regularly transmit location data to Google ‘at least several times an hour’ – April 22, 2011
House Democrat questions legality of Apple’s iPhone, iPad location tracking – April 21, 2011
Apple’s iOS location tracking file caused by a bit of unfinished code? – April 21, 2011
U.S. Senator Al Franken demands answers from Apple’s Steve Jobs over iPhone tracking – April 21, 2011
Expert: iPhone tracking story is nothing new and Apple is not collecting the data – April 21, 2011
‘untrackerd’ jailbreak utility blocks iOS from storing recorded iPhone location data – April 21, 2011
Apple’s iPhone tracks everywhere you go; stores the info in secret file on the device – April 20, 2011

58 Comments

  1. ITS SO FUNNY HOW PEOPLE

    Its so funny that people think its just Apple doing this Google, Microsoft do this lol

    Also here in europe the telecoms networks Vodafone, 02, etc keep a record or every call you make which includes duration, who the call was too, the location of the handset when the call was made for 5 years!!!!!

    1. @ hss1, breeze, etc: get over yourselves.

      Apple admitted errors and is implementing fixes. Franken and other authorities are giving all firms a chance to explain themselves and air out the issue. This is all good for you and me, and it shows why Apple is an admired company: when a problem is uncovered, they actually fix it. Wish they would have been more clear and forthcoming about this in 2007. Thanks to the (late) media investigations, everyone will finally understand the issues in play here. Maybe a senator will even dial back some of the dragonian “Patriot”-style FCC regulations that are not necessary in an open free society. …that is, if Americans are willing to forego the illusion of freedom that comes with such security measures.

      1. What should be noted is that Apple is able to identify the problem and send out a software update that will fix these issues as quickly as it can. If this was WP7 the carriers would allow the update through sometime around iPhone 11.

        1. Why does it not surprise me that nothing intelectual comes from this one. His/her screen name must be indicative of what happens between his/her ears. So sad…

    1. Google may be the real target of the Senator’s query. Including Apple is being even-handed. The two companies’ respective behavior on this issue are likely quite different.

    2. Let’s hope he does, and better yet, hope he gives Apple the opportunity to explain all of this in complete, concise, succinct and flawlessly honest testimony at a Congressional hearing. When Apple states its case and provides unflinching answers, even the boneheaded TV media types might get it straight. All that will only polish Apple’s star. As for Google…well, we’ll see…

    3. … Mike said above. Senator Franken saw this as a problem, he “asked” some executives to come to DC to explain the situation, and Apple (at least) has already promised a fix. Will Google? Sooner than MSFT, perhaps.
      The Senator was attempting to protect YOUR privacy, SH1, you should be thanking him for that. Unless, of course, privacy isn’t your concern?

  2. Apple has provided a very honest, legible explanation to this issue, and has acknowledged the bugs with a promise to a speedy remedy; I am satisfied. Good job, Apple.

  3. I have so much more respect fir Apple now. And that’s hard since I love them so much already.

    This shows just the insane amount of thought and engineering that’s gone into iOS and the technology systems surrounding it.

    Look at #8. it’s either an amazing future, or a red Herring dropped for Google to follow into a dead end.

    1. That traffic service referenced in #8 really interests me..

      I wonder if the SIRI acquisition and the new data center could be part of this traffic service.

      I think it’s more like a harsh reality coming for Google. Apple is shedding their reliance on Google Maps.

  4. A clear, concise answer to the question, WTF is happening with this location data. In a word, nothing.

    As usual, all the hysteria is for nothing. The lawsuits will go away. Apple is not evil.

    Can’t say the same for Google. Will Google tell the truth about their location data gathering? Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.

    1. Yes indeed. Let’s see what Google has to say about their blatant tracking of everyone all over the Internet at all possible times on all possible devices, especially Android OS devices. This is gonna be a SHOW DOWN!

      The law is gunnin’ for Google! And it ain’t gonna be pretty. No sir!

  5. f any of you are concerned about being tracked – why on earth would you buy any product that has a GPS in it (all computers cash info) and why on earth would you buy a cell phone – the towers know almost exactly when (which apple doesn’t know) and where you are? The reaction to this news is stupid.

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