Apple last week issued a statement detailing how its smartphones record and track users’ whereabouts, including an assertion that the company is not tracking its users, but rather, the phone maintains a “crowd-sourced” database of nearby Wifi hotspots and cellular towers.
The statement came less than a day after Connecticut Attorney General George Jepsen filed a formal request with the company and its competitor, Google, to disclose what user location information they are collecting from customers.
The controversy began when computer researchers revealed how the iPhone keeps an extensive location database of where its user has been and included an easy-to-use tool for displaying that data on a map. The phone’s location database is copied, unencrypted, to the personal computer with which the phone is paired through Apple’s iTunes software. The location database has long been known to forensics experts, but the release of the mapping tool for displaying that information led to a media firestorm.
“I am particularly troubled by the apparent lack of clear and conspicuous disclosures regarding these practices and failure to request authorization from users,” Jepsen said in his letter to the companies.
Apple says that they are not tracking the location of their customers, but the phone does download and store information on nearby Wifi hotspots and cellular towers. The phone uses the database to determine its location when its GPS sensor cannot pick up satellites. The database also is used for devices like WiFi-only iPads that lack the GPS circuitry.
The crowd-sourced database, however, is the result of millions of iPhones “phoning home” to Apple without the user’s knowledge. Apple maintains that no personal information is transmitted during the process and is done so in “an anonymous and encrypted form.” Company officials did not respond to a request for more detail about the data they collect from users.
Google also employs a similar strategy to speed up location recognition and also has a crowd-sourced database that its Android phones collect. Ironically, the search giant switched to the Android platform for collecting this data after a controversy over its streetview cars inadvertently collecting data from unencrypted WiFi access points – an issue pursued last year by former Attorney General and now US Senator Richard Blumenthal.
When asked if the disclosure from Apple satisfies Jepsen’s request, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Fitzsimmons says it’s a start, but more information is needed.
“The information Apple posted is welcomed, particularly because, as they acknowledge, Apple has not adequately informed consumers about this issue. The AG’s request asked for some specific information beyond what Apple stated in its release, and we look forward to receiving that more detailed and specific information,” Fitzsimmons, who is handling the inquiry for Jepsen, said.
Both companies have until May 5 to respond. CTTechJunkie will request and share those documents in their entirety once they are made available.