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Researchers: iPhones and iPads track your movements

Consumer Reports News: April 21, 2011 12:53 PM

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According to security researchers, Apple iPhones and iPads are recording your every move, logging your exact longitude and latitude into a hidden and unencrypted but easily accessible file.

The researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, said the hidden tracking occurs on Apple iPhones and 3G iPads using the iOS4 operating system. The location and time information are being stored in a database file, consolidated.db, which is also shared with any computer that is used to sync with an owner's iPhone or iPad.

"We're not sure why Apple is gathering this data," wrote the researchers in a blog post. "But it's clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups, and even device migrations."

The announcement, made on Wednesday at the Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, Calif., has sparked much debate and a number of theories. Some experts believe that the database is used to help improve the devices' GPS and wireless communication capabilities. Still others see the file as a possible invasion of privacy, leading yet others—such as Sen. Al Franken and the ACLU—to demand Apple provide an official explanation of its actions and intent with the data.

Both researchers were quick to point out that there doesn't seem to be any evidence that the location database file is being collected by Apple or shared (other than syncing with owners' computers). So while their advice to iPhone and iPad owners is "don't panic," they do agree with others that Apple needs better disclosure—especially in light of possible malicious use. They wrote:

What makes this issue worse is that the file is unencrypted and unprotected, and it's on any machine you've synched with your iOS device. It can also be easily accessed on the device itself if it falls into the wrong hands. Anybody with access to this file knows where you've been over the last year, since iOS 4 was released.

Allan and Warden produced a YouTube video (see below) detailing their findings about Apple's tracking. They also created a free downloadable program, iPhone Tracker, which maps the recorded location information and allows iPhone and iPad users to see on their Mac how they've been tracked by their mobile devices.

If you're an iPhone or iPad owner, are you concerned? Check out Consumer Reports' Guide to Online Security for privacy tips and give us your thoughts on the matter in our Comments section below.

Got an iPhone or 3G iPad? Apple is recording your moves [O'Reilly Radar]
iPhone Tracker [Peter Warden]
Is your iPhone tracking your movements and keeping a secret file? [USA Today]
How Apple tracks your location without consent, and why it matters [Ars Technica]
Why Apple Tracks You Via iPhone: It's Not Why You Think [PC World]
iPhone and iPad track users’ movement. Do we care? [Washington Post]
iPhone? More Like iSpy! [ACLU]
Senator questions Apple over tracking [Ars Technica]

Paul Eng

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