SAN FRANCISCO (AP) | Privacy watchdogs are demanding answers from Apple Inc. about why iPhones and iPads are secretly collecting location data on users, records that cellular service providers routinely keep but require a court order to disgorge.
It’s not clear whether other smartphones and tablet computers are logging such information on their users. And this week’s revelation that the Apple devices do wasn’t even new - some security experts began warning about the issue a year ago.
But the worry prompted by a report from researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden at a technology conference in Santa Clara, Calif., raises questions about how much privacy you implicitly surrender by carrying around a smartphone and the responsibility of the smartphone makers to protect sensitive data that flows through their devices.
Much of the concern about the iPhone and iPad tracking stems from the fact the computers are logging users’ physical coordinates without users knowing it and that that information is then stored in an unencrypted form that would be easy for a hacker or a suspicious spouse or a law enforcement officer to find without a warrant.
Researchers emphasize that there’s no evidence that Apple itself has access to this data. The data apparently stays on the device itself - and computers the data is backed up to. Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment by the Associated Press.
Tracking is a normal part of owning a cellphone. What’s done with that data, though, is where the controversy lies.
A central question in this controversy is whether a smartphone should act merely as a conduit of location data to service providers and approved applications or as a more active participant by storing the data itself, to make location-based applications run more smoothly or help better target mobile ads or any number of other uses.
Location data is some of the most valuable information a mobile phone can provide, since it can tell advertisers not only where someone has been, but also where someone might be going and what they might be inclined to buy when they get there.
Mr. Allan and Mr. Warden said the location coordinates and time stamps in the Apple devices aren’t always exact, but appear in a file that typically contains about a year’s worth of data that, when taken together, provide a detailed view of users’ travels.
“We’re not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it’s clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups and even device migrations,” they wrote in a blog posting announcing the research.
Mr. Allan said in an email to the AP that he and Mr. Warden haven’t looked at how other smartphones behave in this regard, but added there’s suspicion that phones that run Google Inc.’s Android software might behave in a similar way.
Google did not respond to a request for comment.
Alex Levinson, a security expert, said the tracking Apple’s devices does isn’t new or a surprise to those in the computer forensics community.
The Apple devices have been retaining the information for some time, but it was kept in a different form until the release of the iOS 4 operating software last year, Mr. Levinson, technical lead for the Katana Forensics firm, wrote on his blog.
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