NOTE: This is an update to my original post, located here: http://briandagan.com/confirmed-your-iphone-is-tracking-your-every
Apple has officially responded to the iPhone concerns (we are in the DC area… I’m surprised there hasn’t been a “gate” appended to this yet… iPhonegate… GPSgate). Anyway, here’s the official press release:
To boil it down into a couple of grossly oversimplified key points:
Why is this “tracking database” enabled by default?
The “tracking database” was designed to track cell towers & Wi-Fi hotspots in relation to each other. This is part of the “Location Services” setting on your iPhone, but turning off “Location Services” won’t necessarily turn off communications to/from Apple to share this “crowdsourced” information, which appears to be a bug in their iOS software—a bug that should be fixed in the next iOS update.
What do you mean “crowdsourced?”
In the same way your TomTom GPS “Live” edition uses other TomToms to track traffic flow in near real-time, the iPhone (in collaboration with other iPhones) will, in the future, be able to do the same thing (even Apple says they’re working on “crowdsourced traffic reports”). For now though, you’re sharing information about cell towers, Wi-Fi hotspots, and how they relate to each other geographically. This helps pinpoint your location faster.
Why not just rely on the built-in GPS to figure out your current location?
GPS resolution (the initial “lock on” phase) is slow. Try opening your new GPS navigator for the first time and turning it on. Notice how it takes 3-5 minutes to initially triangulate your location? That “lock on” time decreases as your GPS gets more familiar with where it “thinks” you spend most of your time, but the “lock on” time is always relatively slow. The iPhone attempts to circumvent this limitation of GPS by using the aforementioned “crowdsourced” database of cell towers & Wi-Fi hotspots to triangulate your location based on the wireless signals being broadcast in your current location. For example, I can’t get a clear GPS signal inside this warehouse—but I can pick up the closest cell towers & the Wi-Fi networks immediately—so the iPhone uses that to do the initial location calculation until the GPS chip can “lock on” to a more accurate location (within feet of where you are).
But why would this database need to be so large?
Good question—and Apple acknowledges that it doesn’t need to be an “indefinite record” as it is currently. They’re going to reduce the database size by removing location data older than 7 days—again, in the next iOS update. There’s a tradeoff here—the smaller you make the database, the longer it might take to calculate your location; however, the larger you make the database, the more likely it is that the data logged might come back to bite you (i.e. Try not to murder anyone while you’re carrying your iPhone around).
If I’m using this “crowdsourced” database, I’m sharing my information too, right?
Yes, you are. But Apple says that the data is anonymous and encrypted. For whatever you think that’s worth…
For me personally, I’m still leery that this data even exists, though I understand its purpose. Words like “encrypted” and “anonymous” rarely hold true, and I believe it’s only a matter of time before this information can be intercepted, decrypted & correlated to you (if that isn’t happening already… *cough* Patriot Act (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USA_PATRIOT_Act) *cough*)
Anyway, hope this helps…