Saturday, April 23, 2011

iPhone's 'iTracking' Spurs Questions from Congress

Congress has taken notice of the controversy about Apple's iPhone storing location data. European countries are also looking at whether Apple violated privacy laws. While researchers "revealed" the tracking this week, some researchers say the secret iPhone location file was already known. And tracking by Android devices is also known.
Should Apple's previously unknown recording of location data Relevant Products/Services on the iPhone be described as LocationGate? Maybe, since Congress is now asking questions.

U.S. Senator Al Franken (D-Minn.) has written to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, saying reports of the secret location tracking raise "several questions." These questions, he wrote, include why the location data is being collected, is it being done for laptops, how is the data generated, and why consumers were not informed.

Children's Locations 'Compromised'?

Franken's letter points out that, because the data is stored unencrypted on the iPhone and on any computer to which it syncs, "third parties could gain access to this file." He also noted that it means "millions of children and teenagers who use iPhone and iPad devices also risk having their location collected and compromised."

In addition, there are reports that some European countries will investigate whether Apple has violated privacy laws. Officials in Germany, Italy and France have indicated they are opening investigations or considering them.

But some researchers say the existence of the location recording was previously known. Alex Levinson of Katana Forensics, which retrieves information from electronic devices for legal cases, told The New York Times that the data "has existed in earlier iPhones." In fact, he said, his firm has helped law-enforcement agencies "harvest geolocational evidence from iOS devices," including the iPhone. A new version of the iOS operating system, he said, simply changed the location of the file.

In July, Apple sent a letter to U.S. Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe L. Barton (R-Texas) noting that it collects location data anonymously, but only when consumers agree. The letter indicated that such data is used for location-based apps, with consent. Some experts have suggested the data is used so the iPhone knows its position, not to track users. If so, it's not clear why older location data would be stored.

iPhone as an 'iTrack'?

Markey sent a letter to Apple on Thursday, asking why the data is being stored and raising questions about whether the practice violates the Communications Act. "Apple needs to safeguard the personal location information of its users to ensure that an iPhone doesn't become an iTrack," he said.

But it's not just Apple. The Wall Street Journal has reported that Google's Android phones transmit locations to Google on a regular basis. The Journal discovered that a HTC Android phone collects location data every few seconds, and transmits it several times an hour.

On Wednesday, two researchers announced at a technology Relevant Products/Services conference Relevant Products/Services in San Francisco that they had discovered the iPhone records latitude and longitude coordinates, along with a time stamp, in a previously unknown, unencrypted file that is duplicated on any computer with which that smartphone is synced. The researchers also said they didn't find any such ability in Android phones.

Avi Greengart, an analyst with Current Analysis, described the location-tracking revelation as "a black eye" for Apple, but he added that it isn't clear yet if "consumers are freaked out about this." He said there are a number of outstanding questions, such as why the data is being collected and why it isn't protected, and he suspects Apple hasn't responded yet "because they're trying to figure out these questions themselves."

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