One week after security researchers stoked privacy fears with evidence that iPhones and iPads store location data, Apple today finally released an official statement attempting to quell customer concerns.
"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," the company said in a public "Q & A on Location Data" posted on the company Web site.
Instead of logging the location of its users, Apple said the iPhone keeps a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers nearby users' current locations, some of which could be more than 100 miles away from the phone.
That information is stored on the phones to help them more quickly and accurately determine the phones' location when the owners uses navigation or location-based services.
"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)," the company said.
Apple: Users Are Confused Because Creators Have Not Provided Enough Education
When researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden published their findings on the iPhone location data collection last week, they also launched a Web application that they said lets iPhone users see a map of their location history.
But Apple said the maps actually displayed the locations of the Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers, not the users' specific locations. While the data is sent to the company, Apple said it's transmitted in an anonymous and encrypted form.
In addressing the controversy, Apple also appeared to take some responsibility for the confusion.
"Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date," it said.
The company emphasized that security and privacy are important and that, in the coming weeks, it will release a software update that will reduce the amount of location data stored on the phone and cease to backup the information.
Apple also acknowledged a bug in its system: when users turn off Location Services on the phone, the iPhone should stop updating the cell tower and Wi-Fi data from the database. Currently that does not happen, but the software update will also fix this problem, the company said.
Lawmakers Announce Mobile Privacy Hearing
In the days following the researchers' announcement, digital rights activists and lawmakers criticized both Apple and Google for privacy infringements related to location data.
"The existence of this information -- stored in an unencrypted format -- raises serious privacy concerns," Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., wrote in a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs about the location data. "Anyone who gains access to this single file could likely determine the location of the user's home, the businesses he frequents, the doctors he visits, the schools his children attend, and the trips he has taken -- over the past months, or even a year."
In response to reports that Google's Android phones also collect location data, Google said, "All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user."
Apple's official statement on location data comes two days after Franken announced that the Senate would hold a hearing on mobile privacy concerns, with Apple and Google executives, on May 10.