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Apple Testifies on Mobile Privacy, Location Cache Encryption Coming to iOS

As noted last week, Apple vice president Bud Tribble today participated in a U.S. Senate panel discussion of mobile privacy, particularly as it relates to location tracking. Tribble's appearance alongside Google's Alan Davidson and other experts and privacy advocates was supplemented with a new formal letter (PDF) from Apple to concerned legislators reiterating and expanding upon comments made several weeks ago as Apple sought to address public scrutiny of the issue.

During his testimony, Tribble took great pains to make clear that the iOS location database has not been tracking users' devices directly, instead containing information on nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi access points to aid the device itself in quickly determining its location for services relying on that information. Apple of course acknowledged several bugs that had allowed that local cache to grow larger than intended and prevented the information from being deleted when location services were disabled. Those bugs were addressed with last week's release of iOS 4.3.3.

Apple apparently plans to go further, however, noting that it will encrypt the downsized local cache as of the "next major release" of iOS. And Apple has already ceased backing up the cached access point location data to users' computers as part of the device backup process.

The local cache is protected with iOS security features, but it is not encrypted. Beginning with the next major release of iOS, the operating system will encrypt any local cache of the hotspot and cell tower location information.

Prior to the [iOS 4.3.3] update, iTunes backed up the local cache (stored in consolidated.db) as part of the normal device backup if there was a syncing relationship between the device and a computer. The iTunes backup, including consolidated.db, may or may not have been encrypted, depending on the customer's settings in iTunes. After the software update, iTunes does not back up the local cache (now stored in cache.db).

Senators also pressed Apple and Google on third-party applications, inquiring about how the companies address data collection and usage by third-party developers offering software for their platforms, as well as whether those developers should be required to publish explicit privacy policies regarding users' data.

In response, Tribble briefly explained Apple's App Store review process and noted that the company believes that developer privacy policies would not go far enough in informing users, sharing information on Apple's decision to include visual indicators within iOS telling users when their location is being accessed and which applications have accessed that information within the previous 24 hours.

On the topic of how Apple polices developers on what is done with that data after is collected, Tribble pointed to random audits of applications and their network traffic behavior, a reliance on user and blog reports of issues, and a fast response time to pull down apps exhibiting questionable behavior until those issues can be resolved.

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

Top Rated Comments

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42 months ago

I hope they use Kleig Lamps at full power on these jokers. Make the searing heat of the lamps force the truth out of their well practiced script designed to give them and their privacy trampling employers plausible deniability.

Can we then turn them on you to finally learn the truth: That you're shorting Apple stock and merely come here to advance your own goals?
Rating: 10 Votes
42 months ago
You can watch it here:
Rating: 8 Votes
42 months ago
Apple uses user location to provide better experience.

Google uses user location as cash cow.
Rating: 7 Votes
42 months ago

Honest question(s) here:

I have a 2nd generation ipod touch does not support iOS 4.3. Does my iPod touch still have the "location tracking" databse in it, and will an update become available for my old iPod touch to remove this database? When I plug my iPod into itunes, it does not show that an iOS update is available.

Or is this whole thing only centered around iPhones, with their cellphone radios? Obviously, my ipod touch cannot track cell towers...

The honest answer: Why do you care? Do you intend letting anyone steal your iPod Touch? And if they steal it, what are the chances that anyone actually bothers checking what is in that cache? And if they actually bother checking, what are the chances that they could find anything that could be used against you?

I wonder if the changes will cause IOS devices to take longer getting an initial location?

Yes, if you turn on GPS in a location where you haven't been for a week or however long the cache lasts. I'd make the cache last 8 days so if you go to some place every week on the same day, it will be in the cache. I mean this is all damage limitation now, how to get the best possible performance while mollifying the clueless idiots who are afraid of non-existing dangers.

The irony is that this caching design (while only sending updates back to the central DB) is a better means of providing privacy from Apple as it cuts down on the traffic between the two and reduces the information they can glean indirectly if they were being malicious.

Well, plenty of clueless idiots who don't understand these things. I'd pick two random points up to three miles from your home and your place of work, then add all the information in a twenty mile radius, so there is plenty of information with no clue about your actual location, and your phone would never ask Apple for information.
Rating: 6 Votes
42 months ago
I must live a pretty dull life. I can't think of anyplace I've gone with my iPhone in the past that would warrent concern over someone else knowing where I've been. Cell phone towers have been tracking me for about 5 years now, and I haven't found the need to complain or make a big deal about it. Is everyone else out there involved in covert national security operations, murders, or what?
Rating: 5 Votes
42 months ago
Funny... A lot of people here are worried about non-descript, non user specific location data, but yet, no one is up in arms that organizations like the FBI monitor internet traffic for IP address access to see who's visiting certain web sites. To me, that is more troubling. That is "big brother" watching you, not some computer company trying to give you better service, or better map data.
Rating: 4 Votes
42 months ago

I wonder if the changes will cause IOS devices to take longer getting an initial location?

Not really. The cache still holds for 7 days, which is enough for day-to-day operation. It'll get a little befuddled when on a vacation for a bit, but the end result is that when you do need to query Apple, it sends down a bunch of sites nearby so you don't have to query them again for a while. The timestamps in the cache will likely be such that if you commute in the same area most of the time, you populate the cache once and that's it.

The irony is that this caching design (while only sending updates back to the central DB) is a better means of providing privacy from Apple as it cuts down on the traffic between the two and reduces the information they can glean indirectly if they were being malicious.
Rating: 4 Votes
42 months ago

Apple doesn't gather our private information then sell it to advertisers without asking or letting us know the way facebook and google do ...

Remember that free iOS update that included iAd?

Facebook and Google don't sell your information to someone else. They sell the fact that they have it, and use it to place ads more effectively. They are the go between for advertisers and their customers (or users). They hold enormous amounts of demographics and data.

You make an ad campaign, and pick the demographics who you want to target, and google and Facebook take care of the rest. Facebook ads can get scary accurate. Apple would be insane to run an ad network and not do something similar. There would be no reason to advertise with them if they were many times less effective than their competitors.

The privacy concerns are overblown and paranoid.

Don't worry, others will protect your rights for you.

Good to see them fixed, but there are a heck of a lot more things to worry about than some generic and vague data on the iPhone location log.

There is always something bigger to worry about. If people took that viewpoint, nothing small would ever get done.

If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.

"This is a version of the very popular “The innocent have nothing to fear” argument, which is wheeled out whenever authorities wish to bring in new measures which increase surveillance or limit freedoms in the name of increasing security. For example, someone demands to search your luggage. You object to this intrusion on your privacy, but you are told that if you are innocent, you have no reason to object. After all, what are you trying to hide?

The argument is a particular species of false dichotomy. You are presented with a simple either/or choice. Either you’re guilty, and so should be exposed; or you are innocent, in which case nothing will be exposed, and so you have nothing to worry about. Either way, you have no legitimate reason to be concerned. Like all false dichotomies, the problem is that there is at least one more option than the two offered in the either/or choice. — Julian Baggini
Rating: 3 Votes
42 months ago
I'm guessing they were not bugs, but instead design flaws because little or no attention was given to the issue. Changing the design ("fixing the bugs") after the fact is better than nothing.
Rating: 3 Votes
42 months ago

Many years ago, I was one of the US Army's top direction finders. An exact location isn't necessary to extract lots of helpful data. Sometimes just the general vicinity will do.

For extreme example, consider if such info had been used to help find bin Laden's courier's travels. It wouldn't be necessary to know all his exact coordinates. Just knowing the towns or heck, even the country in this case, is a huge benefit.

More down to earth, knowing the town where a battered wife goes, knowing that a suspected undercover agent goes to DC, knowing that a spouse visits their ex's city, knowing where your employees were at any hour... any such general location tracking can be powerful info.

Yes, I think it was pretty innocent data collection. No, it's not entirely without possible harmful side effects, albeit for only a small portion of the population.

No, but Apple under Jobs is highly prone to misdirection, which is why they kept the spotlight on that file, not on other collection files.

That's correct. Apple's not tracking people exactly. However, they do keep a record of the zip codes you've done location based requests from, in order to better serve ads to you.

As for that particular database file, the info came from Apple, so there was no reason to send it back.

However, the phone does at times record its exact GPS location and any nearby hotspots or cells, for later transmission to Apple. We are where the later downloaded crowd-sourced info comes from, after all.

And yet, there are more useful data already on the phone, and identical data available from the provider (for cops) that are easier and faster to access.

This is absolute paranoid delusions, and has been since the first story broke a week ago or whenever. Absolutely crazy, just read Full of Win's posts in this thread. Can't believe he's willing to post on the internet at all with his conspiracy paranoia. It's like you're all in a Bond film, let's find the hardest way to kill (track) someone instead of just picking up a gun (actual location data from Maps and other apps) and shooting them.

And APPARENTLY, no one can seem to remember that theft or 4th Amendment searches are the only way to get ACCESS to the file in the first place. Every paranoid post makes it sound like this file is emailed to every person on the planet every day.

The illogic is running beyond rampant this week. It's insane.
Rating: 3 Votes

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