The Issue:

The iPhone and iPad (anything with 3G access) log location data to a file called consolidated.db. Apple triangulates your location from cell phone towers, and logs that information to that file. Unlike GPS, however, there is no setting to turn off this location tracking, and Apple does not explicitly ask for user consent before logging the information. Thus, anyone using the iPhone as a cell phone is being tracked and logged.

While cell phone companies have long held such location data from ordinary cell phones, such data is protected from the public. However, with Apple’s method of logging data to a file that is backed up to your Mac or PC, unencrypted information is accessible to anyone who gets a hold of your iPhone or computer.

The Concerns:

The controversy prompted letters from Sentator Al Franken (D-MN) and US Representative Ed Markey (D-MA) demanding that Apple answer questions about how the data is collected, how or when it is sent to Apple, and how Apple could protect a user’s privacy.

Princeton University researcher Timothy B. Lee
“If this was an accident, Apple needs to fix the problem and put in place procedures to make sure it doesn’t happen again. If the data is being collected deliberately, Apple should have clearly notified users and given them an opportunity to opt out.”

Apple’s Response:

Apple claims that the information is used to get a faster GPS lock on your location, and according to Apple’s lead counsel Bruce Sewell, the data is anonymous, and it is used to improve Apple’s database of cell tower and WiFi hotspot locations.

Nevertheless, soon after the controversy broke out, Apple issued a software update to “fix the bug” that allowed logging even when location services were turned off. The update reduced the size of the location database cached on the phone. The consolidated.db file will no longer be synced onto user’s computers, and the cache will be deleted when users turn off Location Services.

For sources, see our References page.

Location Services

How much location data does your iPhone log?