Apple has issued an official statement in an attempt to explain recent reports about the gathering and use of location information by the company’s flagship iPhone handset.
“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. [We have] never done so and has no plans to ever do so,” the company claimed.
However, Cupertino acknowledged that providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving security and privacy has raised some “very complex” technical issues.
“Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.
“[Nevertheless], 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.”
According to Apple, calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. But the iPhone reduces this time to just a few seconds by tapping Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites – and triangulates its location using Wi-Fi hotspots and cell tower data when GPS is not available.
“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.
“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.”
Unsurprisingly, Apple emphasized that location data recently identified by security researchers did not include the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather, the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone – which could (theoretically) be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone.
“This data is sent to [us] in an anonymous and encrypted form. [We] cannot identify the source of this data. [Still], we plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon.”
Apple also attempted to explain why the iPhone stores “so much” historical data in order to assist it in finding current user locations.
“This data is not the iPhone’s location data – it is [actually 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. We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.”
Apple also blamed a bug for causing the iPhone to “sometimes” update its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from the company’s crowd-sourced database – even when location services are turned off.
“[The iOS update] 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.”
Finally, Apple conceded that it has been collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database, as it plans on providing iPhone users with an “improved traffic service” in the next couple of years.
The company also confirmed it provided 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.”