Apple reacted quickly to the iPhone location tracking bug. iOS 4.3.3 fixes the latest bugs and deletes the entire cache when the location service is turned off.
Modern wireless society is trying to find a balance between the individual’s want and need for personal privacy and the utility of their devices and applications. This issue has most recently been thrown into the spotlight when it was revealed in April 2011 that Apple iOS 4.3.3/4.4 iPhones and iPads have been gathering and storing user location data from cell towers for up to a year in an unencrypted file on the devices—even after location services are supposedly deactivated.
How Location Tracking Works
Obviously the user has to expect some location data to be gathered and stored in order for useful apps such as direction and location finders to work properly. Normally this is done through GPS technology, and in most devices the data is stored for a limited time in an encrypted file which is automatically deleted. The iOS 4.3.3/4.4 devices use GPS, plus they assemble data from surrounding cell phone towers to establish a quicker location profile, which is then stored long-term. The company says that when the cache is full it will eventually reset itself, but no limit has been reached as of yet.
Only A Small Bug According To Apple
Apple insists that the detail is only a “bug,” which it will remedy in an upcoming fix that promises to encrypt the data file, limit its storage scope and truly stop logging location data after those services are turned off. However, it should be noted that Apple defends the practice in principle, stating that it stores such “crowdsourcing” data from cell phone towers to help optimize user location services, since GPS triangulation can take minutes. Apple has submitted a patent for the location-gathering system, which seems to clash with the company’s public stance that it was just a “bug.”
Why it’s a Big Deal
By gathering so much data on a user over such an extended period of time it’s possible to build up a profile of them, and to find those who might prefer not to be located, for their own reasons. This isn’t offensive to some people, but to privacy advocates it is a major violation. Marketers and even governments are eager to get such information, since it provides them with an intimate picture of the person’s habits which can be used to target advertising or programs better. Many people don’t want to be profiled, especially when they have chosen to switch off those services.
How to Fix It On Older iOS versions
Although there isn’t a complete Apple-authorized fix for this privacy breach, it is possible for users with a jailbroken iPhone or iPad 1 to take evasive action. The Untrackerd App was developed by “Big Boss” Ryan Petrich, the well-known jailbreaker app writer and is now available for download through Cydia, the third-party iOS app store. This free app is 37 KB and will run unobtrusively in the background of the user’s device, constantly cleaning out the location data cache so nothing is stored longer than a few minutes.
Apple’s target market is mostly comfortable with being mainstream and locatable, but not every is. The company’s ostensible reasons for assembling the data seem innocuous enough, but some inconsistencies in their response to the revelation (and not having revealed it in the first place) have been disturbing to many. Apple will release the fix in near future, but until then users with jailbroken iOS 4.3.3/4.4 devices can use the Untrackerd App instead.
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