April 25, 2011 -- As users and politicians continue to ask questions about the discovery of a location history database built into iOS, Apple is finally addressing the issue. Well, kind of.
MacRumors reports that one of its readers sent an email to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, asking for clarification and explanations regarding the "consolidated.db" file built into iOS. The existence of the file — which appears to keep a log of longitude and latitude coordinates from cell triangulation towers — was brought to mainstream attention last week after data researchers created a Mac OS X app that was able to generate a visualization of the data using the file from an iOS iTunes backup.
Jobs's response, according to MacRumors, was to call the "info circulating" false.
The reader's email said:
Could you please explain the necessity of the passive location-tracking tool embedded in my iPhone? It's kind of unnerving knowing that my exact location is being recorded at all times. Maybe you could shed some light on this for me before I switch to a Droid. They don't track me.
Jobs's purported response was:
Oh yes they do. We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false.
Tabling the issue of Android location-tracking for a moment, the "false" information seems to refer to reports that Apple actually collects the data that is stored on the phone, rather than the existence of the cellular location logs themselves.
Although we have our own questions — and concerns — about unencrypted cellular location logs being stored in iTunes backups, it's important to understand that the local existence of a file or database does not mean that the same information is accessible to anyone without access to the physical phone or a computer where the phone has been backed up.
Moving onto the issue of Android and its own location history tracking, Magnus Eriksson built a tool that parses two location database caching files present on Android devices. These cache files collect similar information as the "consolidated.db" file in iOS, the difference is data is pruned when new information is added. The result is that the history of a user's location is much more limited than in iOS.
Moreover, because Android doesn't have a desktop-side backup client, these cache files are not ever backed up to a user's computer.
As of right now, there is no evidence that any of the cellular triangulation data stored on an iPhone or Android device is transmitted elsewhere. That doesn't eliminate the concerns that iOS users may have over the existence of an unencrypted file that can be backed up to their system, but it does significantly mitigate the risk of said data.