iPhone Location Tracking Confusion: 7 Key Facts

Apple iPhone owners had to wade through rivers of confusing, even contradictory, information last week regarding location tracking data. CIO.com's Bill Snyder sets the record straight and offers some useful tips.

Given how much confusing and often contradictory information has been filling the media over the last week, it wouldn't surprise me if some iPhone users were calling in priests to exorcise the demons of privacy invasion.

There are reasons to be concerned about the ways Apple, cellular carriers and third-party software developers handle your personal information, including location data.

But how big a threat is the iPhone's penchant for holding on to a database of your locations for as long as a year? In a word: small. The chances of someone actually getting their hands on that data and finding a way to use it are remote.

Slideshow: 15 Best iPhone Apps for Newbies

Slideshow: 10 iPhone and iPad Apps to Download, Then Delete

In case you missed the brouhaha: A pair of researchers last week began a new discussion of the fact that Apple iPhones and iPads track users' locations and store the data in an unencrypted file on the devices and on owners' computers. It turns out that Google's Android phones also record and transmit a certain amount of location data as well.

Since Apple has been stubbornly silent on the matter, it's not surprising that people are confused. What's more the story has been changing on a daily basis. Here's what you really to know about the issue:

1. What data are we talking about?

Like any cell phone, the iPhone needs to know where you are to make and receive calls or to upload and download data. It does this by deriving your position from the location of nearby cell phone towers, or through GPS applications. In either case Apple stores that data on your iPhone and then backs it up via iTunes. Although Apple won't confirm it the researchers who made news last week — Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden — believe the data comes from the cell towers.

2. Why is the data being stored at all?

Apple isn't saying. Andrew Storms, director of security operations for nCircle, a security vendor, says it would make sense to have some of that data available so the phone always knows where it is. Having the data in hand speeds up the process in much the same way your browser caches data so it can quickly call up a page you've already visited. What's more, it saves battery life since the device isn't working as much to determine its location. But keeping a year's worth does not make sense, he says, adding that Apple owes users an explanation.

3. Is the data encrypted?

No. However, the files are compressed and the file names are changed, says Michael Sutton, vice president for security research at Zscaler. He was able to read his own files by using a Unix tool called Grep. Not very many people would know how to use that tool, but Allan and Warden wrote a program that makes finding and viewing those files much easier. Remember, since the files are on your phone and on your computer, someone would have to have direct access to those devices, either by stealing or hacking them remotely.

1 2 Page 1
Page 1 of 2
Survey says! Share your insights in our 2020 CIO Tech Poll.