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Senator Asks Apple About Location-Tracking Issues as Experts Weigh In

With much publicity about yesterday's iOS location-tracking issue, a number of voices have already weighed in to provide additional perspective on exactly what is happening with respect to user privacy.

As noted by Ars Technica, U.S. Senator Al Franken sent a letter (PDF) to Apple CEO Steve Jobs yesterday asking for more detail on how consumers' information is being used and why it is not encrypted.

Anyone who finds a lost or stolen iPhone or iPad or who has access to any computer used to sync one of these devices could easily download and map out a customer's precise movements for months at a time. It is also entirely conceivable that malicious persons may create viruses to access this data from customers' iPhones, iPads, and desktop and laptop computers. There are numerous ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors.

A number of observers have pointed out that Apple did respond to location-tracking concerns last July, noting that such information could be collected, batched, and sent to Apple to assist with generating and refining its database of cellular and Wi-Fi access points for providing location services. Location tracking is also used to aid in targeting iAds to customers based on their geographic region, although this information is not passed on to advertisers.

We mentioned in our initial report that knowledge of this "consolidated.db" file containing the timestamped location information was not new, having been used by forensic analysts associated with law enforcement seeking to determine the whereabouts of a given device (and presumably the person associated with that device) at a given time. One of the people primarily responsible for developing those forensic tools, Alex Levinson, has weighed in on the developments, specifically taking issue with several of yesterday's claims.

While forensics isn't in the forefront of technology headlines these days, that doesn't mean critical research isn't being done surrounding areas such as mobile devices. I have no problem with what Mr. Warden and Mr. Allan have created or presented on, but I do take issue with them making erroneous claims and not citing previously published work. I'm all for creative development and research, as long as it's honest.

For example, while Apple has noted in the past that it does collect information for specific purposes, it does so anonymously. Consequently, Levinson notes that claims that Apple is gathering information about user locations are overblown. Levinson also notes that the database of locations in iOS is neither hidden nor new as presented in yesterday's report, reporting that the file had existed in earlier versions of iOS as "h-cells.plist" but changed names and locations with iOS 4 in order to support background location services employed as part of the new multitasking features of iOS.

Finally, Levinson points to his own work, including contributions to a textbook describing exactly what the various database files are and how they are used. Levinson also developed and is continuing to work in his capacity as lead engineer Katana Forensics on Lantern, software for forensic professionals assisting them with pulling information from such files.

Related roundups: iPhone 5c, iPhone 5s, iPhone 6, iPad Air

Top Rated Comments

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39 months ago
If someone breaks into my home and hacks into my Mac (using the OS X DVD to do a password reset), I have a lot more worries than whether they know how to find out what neighborhoods’ cell towers I’ve used! Luckily, encrypting your iPhone backup is simple, automatic, and unbreakable; and has the added benefit that then your iPhone’s keychain gets included in the backup. (Otherwise it doesn’t, with good reason.)

If, on the other hand, they steal my phone, they’re unlikely to stop me from remotely shredding it so fast their head spins :)

That said, dumping the old cached data is good practice, and Apple really needs to do so. I’d be surprised if they didn’t patch it to do just that. So: good catch! (Of course, this was noticed months ago.)
Rating: 8 Positives
39 months ago

Apple hackers develop better jailbreaks now so they can keep up with the superior system Android has.

There's so much more one can do with Android.

After having every iPhone, I tried Android and I'm so amazed at their great capabilities.

Android is awesome.

That said my Iphone 4 is best as an iPod replacement.

I have the best of both worlds.


YOu sound like an advertiser for Acai Berries Diet.
Rating: 7 Positives
39 months ago

Once sent to Apple, it should be removed from the phone though, which is not happening right now according to reports. This is wrong. The problem isn't the feature per say, it's the persistence of this database and it's very accurate, low-resolution.


Reports are the file isn't sent to Apple, it doesn't leave the iPhone/iTunes backup. It exists to cache the location of nearby cell towers to provide a rough location in an area with no GPS or data connection. If it wasn't persistent, it would be pointless

This explains it very well: http://forums.macrumors.com/showpost.php?p=12432603&postcount=16 (http://forums.macrumors.com/showpost.php?p=12432603&postcount=16)
Rating: 6 Positives
39 months ago
The people who are truly concerned about their privacy, for whatever reason that may be, know that this issue pales in comparison to everything else.
Rating: 5 Positives
39 months ago

I trust Apple a lot more than Al Franken.

Remember, Al Franken voted for legislation that would require, among other privacy violations:
- All your health care information be reported to the government.
- All your health care information be kept in a centrallized location.
- the disclosure of your financial and health care information to the IRS without your notification
- all busiensses that gather any information about you via the internet (including Apple) to disclose this information to the government upon demand and without a warrant.

So, Franken can pretend like he cares about privacy, but he's already clearly on the record in thinking that you don't have any privacy when HE wants to find out things about you.


Al Franken isnt tracking me, my iphone is.

What a lame ass attempt to politicize the issue :rolleyes:
Rating: 5 Positives
39 months ago



Maybe focus on Jobs...


Might want to rephrase that.
Rating: 5 Positives
39 months ago
It doesn't take long for crap politics to enter a thread....
Rating: 4 Positives
39 months ago

At least he's got a birth certificate.

You and Full of Win must be related. Or married. Or both.
Rating: 4 Positives
39 months ago


There is a reason that some of us Jailbreak, outside of the desire to add applications outside of the appstore.


Apple hackers develop better jailbreaks now so they can keep up with the superior system Android has.

There's so much more one can do with Android.

After having every iPhone, I tried Android and I'm so amazed at their great capabilities.

Android is awesome.

That said my Iphone 4 is best as an iPod replacement.

I have the best of both worlds.
Rating: 4 Positives
39 months ago
This really is not a issue in my opinion. Smart phones have tons of data stored on them and if its really not being sent, whats the harm. If someone were to get my phone and read my info, they will be as excited as I used to be in PE class. First the DUI checkpoints now this. Is there something more important for them to look into? Like a Budget and ( insert concern here ) :)

Now if your a bad boy or girl, I can see this becoming a Court Evidence Issue in the near future. But until then, remember the NSA scans calls randomly for "our safety" Bigger issues than this in the world of privacy.
Rating: 3 Positives

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