The so-called discovery of a hidden database tracking the location of iOS device users is actually neither new or secret. Image: Flickr/Prairiekittin CC-BY-SA

Sensational reports that Apple is secretly tracking the location of iPhone and iPad users erupted online Wednesday. A pair of developers released a free app online that enables Apple device users to view how their location has been tracked over time like pins on a map. But the so-called discovery of a hidden location database that tracks the cell towers the devices connect to has been common knowledge in forensic circles for nearly a year.

Apple iTracking scandal erupts

Citing “unauthorized surveillance,” breathless bloggers are reporting that Apple devices are tracking user locations and storing the data without their knowledge. Apparently Big Brother has been watching since June 2010 when iOS 4.0, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system was released. The accusations were leveled by developers promoting an open source app called iPhone Tracker that pulls “secret” location history data from the device’s backup files and projects it on a map. The location data is collected by using cell phone towers to triangulate approximate locations. The developers noted that wireless carriers collect similar data but keep it behind their firewalls and a court order is required to gain access. They warn that Apple, however, has enabled anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to trace a customer’s movements.

Facts behind iTracking

The press has been flogging the iTracking scandal, but the fact that law enforcement agencies have been using the location data stored in Apple devices in their investigations for some time has been largely ignored. Alex Levinson, a researcher at the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York, works with a forensics company that makes tools for interrogating iOS devices. Levinson told GigaOm that the location history database is neither new or secret. The iPhone tracker developers also missed a story in the Los Angeles Times shortly after iOS 4.0 was released about Apple changing its privacy policy to allow the company to collect user location information. Apple responded by sending a letter to Congress detailing what kind of location information Apple collects and how it is encrypted and stored.

How to deal with iTracking

According to Apple, location data is collected when a user is running a location sharing app such as Foursquare or Facebook Places. But once the iOS device encrypts and transmits the data to Apple, the data remains on the device, as well as the synched computers, unencrypted. But Apple device users can encrypt their device’s backup files with the following process:

Connect the iPad or iPhone to the computer used to synch the device.
Select the device in iTunes to bring up the summary screen.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page and select the box next to “Encrypt iPhone [or iPad] backup.”
Set the password that will be used to access backups.

Apple is also significantly limited from collecting location information from the device if location services are turned off. Users who don’t want to be tracked can simply open the device’s “Settings” app (the silver cog) and toggle “Location Services” to “Off.”





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