Following a week of criticisms over potential privacy violations, personal computer maker Apple Inc. said Wednesday it does not pinpoint the movements of its iPhone and iPad customers, even though it does track them anonymously from a distance.
Last week, two researchers found a secret file called “consolidated.db” that’s stored on iPhones and iPads and appears to keep a list of customers’ whereabouts dating back almost a year. The revelation sparked outrage among customers and online privacy groups, and Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota announced plans to hold hearings on the matter next month.
Apple was mum on the accusations until Wednesday, when it said the report was based on a “misunderstanding.”
The company said it keeps a list of the WiFi hotspots and cell towers to which customers can connect. In some cases, these spots are as far away as 100 miles, so Apple can detect its customers general movements - but not their exact location. Furthermore, Apple officials contended that the data come in anonymously, so customers aren’t identified.
“The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of WiFi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location,” Apple said. “This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.”
But the company did admit there are several bugs that will soon be fixed. The anonymous data the devices were tracking dated back to June 2010, when the iPhone 4 was released, in some cases. Apple said it only needs to store one week’s worth of data.
Apple also said some customers are turning off the location systems, only to find they are still being tracked.
“This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly,” the company said.
The controversy is just the latest in a long string of privacy concerns relating to cellphones and other new telecommunications devices. Google Inc. and Facebook have also been at the center of recent privacy complaints.
Privacy is proving to be a very touchy subject for the industry. According to a recent study by the Nielson Company, the majority of smartphone users who download apps are concerned about privacy violations. Only 12 percent of men and 8 percent of women have no concerns at all.
Several lawmakers on Capitol Hill have also expressed concern about the iPhone and iPad tracking reports. Governments in South Korea, Italy, Germany and France has also said they are looking into whether the Apple devices violated privacy statutes, according to Bloomberg News.
“I think we should just assume every device and every company is doing this,” said Jeff Kagan, a wireless and telecom industry analyst based in Atlanta. “The big lesson to learn here is we have no more privacy.”
But as privacy watchdogs clamp down on technology firms, a growing number of consumers are demanding location-awareness services like GPS systems that map out driving routes and applications that highlight nearby store discounts. Apple argues tracking a customer’s general whereabouts helps the company provide these services more quickly when they ask to be pinpointed.
Many times consumers want the best of both worlds - reliable location services that also protect their privacy.
“Why this is a surprise get’s me,” Mr. Kagan said. “…After all, in order for your handy smartphone to have GPS navigation services built in, it has to know where you are all the time. Ah, you never thought of that did you?”