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Wednesday, April 27, 2011
Apple Responds to Location Tracking Controversy


Apple today released a statement explaining how the company uses location data, an issue that has been at the forefront since last week when researchers revealed that the iPhone includes a hidden file that stores latitude, longitude and timestamps.

Apple said the idea is based on a misunderstanding, but it also promised software fixes to address privacy concerns.

The phones don't store their users' locations, but a list of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in their general area, the company said.

Apple said that the iPhone is maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone?s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements,) Apple explained. These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so Apple downloads an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone?s location, Apple added. Apple plans to cease backing up this cache in an iOS software update coming "sometime in the next few weeks."

Apple also said that a bug was responsible for storing a year?s worth of location data on iPhones, promising to fix it shortly with a software update. The software update will also address an issue where even when an iPhone users turned off the device's Location Services, the iPhone sometimes continued updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple?s database.

To sum up, Apple plans to address the following bugs with the upcoming iOS software update:

- reduce the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
- cease backing up this cache, and
- delete this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

Apple added that it is also collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

Anonymous crash logs from users are also provided to third-party developers to help them debug their apps, Apple said. In addition, the company's iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads.

Wednesday's statement was Apple's the first comprehensive response to allegations. The data was file uncovered by researchers and publicized last week and has drawn attention in Congress.

Google has defended itself by saying that location sharing by users of Android-based mobile phones is opt-in and that all location data the company stores is anonymized.

Last week, the Illinois attorney general, Minnesota Senator Al Franken and Congressman Edward Markey have all asked Apple and Google to respond to questions about their location collection activities. Two consumers have also filed a lawsuit in Florida charging both companies with fraud. In addition, governments in Korea and Europe are reportedly investigating the matter.

Microsoft has also laid out details about its Windows Phone 7 data collection policies.

White iPhone to arrive Thursday

In related news, Apple today announced that the long-delayed white iPhone 4 will go on sale Thursday in the United States, United Kingdom and 26 other countries for $199 (16GB model) or $299 (32GB model .)

Apple said Wednesday the prices are for phones purchased with a two-year contract from AT&T Inc. or Verizon Wireless in the U.S.



Apple has delayed the launch of the white phones many times. Initially, the devices were scheduled to go on sale in July 2010 and then in late 2010. In October, Apple finaly said the white phones would be available in the spring.

Apple also announced that the iPad 2 will go on sale in Japan on Thursday and in Hong Kong, South Korea, Singapore and eight more countries on Friday.

iPad 2 with Wi-Fi will be available in these countries for a suggested retail price of $499 (US) for the 16GB model, $599 (US) for the 32GB model and $699 (US) for the 64GB model. iPad 2 with Wi-Fi + 3G will be available for a suggested retail price of $629 (US) for the 16GB model, $729 (US) for the 32GB model and $829 (US) for the 64GB model. iPad 2 with Wi-Fi will be available in China on May 6.


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