By Harry McCracken | Wednesday, April 27, 2011 at 9:26 am
It took a week, but Apple has published questions and answers about the discovery that iOS devices keep an unencrypted file with months of data that can be used to figure out where the device has been. It does a good job of explaining what the data is (a subset of a database of Wi-Fi hotspots, some of which may be up to a hundred miles from where the device is), what it’s used for (pinpointing the device’s location more quickly than can be done with GPS alone), and why it stores so much data and does so even if you shut off location services (because it’s buggy). It also confirms that Apple can’t use the data to track you–it sees it only in anonymous, encrypted form. And it says it’s collecting anonymous traffic data for a service–built-in turn-by-turn navigation?–which it plans to release eventually.
Apple says that it’ll release an update in the next few weeks that collects less data and none at all if location services are turned off, and doesn’t back it up to iTunes. And in the next major iOS revision, it’ll encrypt the data on the device.
Was reaction to all this overblown? Yes, since some of it suggested that Apple had access to data it could use to track individual consumers, a scenario that the evidence didn’t support. But it’s important that we know what our phones know about us. The researchers who wrote about this did Apple customers a favor–and they seem to have done Apple a favor, too, by finding bugs in iOS.