Thursday, April 28, 2011

Apple denies tracking iPhone and iPad users

The company says it has discovered bugs that resulted in too much location data being kept on the devices. Data are of nearby cellular towers and Wi-Fi access points, it says, not users' whereabouts.

Apple said it would fix two issues with the way the data was stored in the next few weeks.

Breaking nearly a week of silence to respond to a mounting outcry, Apple Inc. denied that it was tracking iPhone and iPad users but said that it had discovered bugs that resulted in too much location data being kept on the devices.

The company said that the controversy resulted in part because users had become "confused" by the technical complexity of the issue, and that the devices store geographical data in order to provide location-based services, such as map directions.

The locations stored by the iPhone and iPad are not a log of users' whereabouts, the company said Wednesday, but a database of nearby cellular towers and Wi-Fi access points that Apple already knows about. The devices can use that location data to, for example, calculate driving directions and offer coupons to local stores.

To tamp down the rising concerns, Apple even enlisted Steve Jobs, the company's chief executive who is currently on medical leave, to answer questions about the data collection. Jobs told the Wall Street Journal that the company was not tracking anyone and that an upcoming software update would reduce the amount of location data on the devices to about seven days' worth from as much as a year.

"Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a sound bite," the company said in a statement. "Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date."

Apple's response came amid growing concern from a number of U.S. and foreign government officials as well as privacy advocates about the nature of the location data file. Rep . Ed Markey (D-Mass), who had asked the company to explain the location data last week, said in a statement Wednesday that he was pleased Apple was addressing the issue but signaled that he had questions about whether the company used the data to sell advertising to users.

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who had also sent a letter to Apple about the location tracking, has called for Apple and Google Inc. to attend a Senate subcommittee hearing on mobile privacy to be held May 10. Jobs said Apple would be present for the hearing.

Google has also been pressed to explain how and why its Android-based smartphones collect, store and transmit user location data.

Kevin Bankston, a senior attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an online civil liberties group, praised Apple for taking steps to reduce the amount of personal data on the phone but said consumer technology companies should be more upfront with their users about the data they collect.

"We shouldn't have to be in a constant battle with companies where the public is continually uncovering new privacy problems that the companies were opaque about before," Bankston said.

Apple emphasized that the data stored on the phone are not a user's exact real-time location, but an amalgam of Wi-Fi access points and cell tower locations "which can be more than 100 miles away from the iPhone."

The company, however, did not highlight that many Wi-Fi access points can be much closer, including in specific rooms in users' homes and offices. And as cellular networks have become larger and more sophisticated, companies have built many more towers so that each one can cover a smaller area more effectively.

Experts have said that Wi-Fi and cell-tower location data may soon be as specific as the highly precise GPS satellite data.

Apple said it would fix two issues with the way the data were stored, each of which it called a "bug." Those fixes would come in the next few weeks, the company said, and would include shortening the list of stored locations and enabling users to prevent the devices from keeping them in the first place.

By David Sarno, Los Angeles Times
Copyright © 2011, Los Angeles Times

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