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April 22nd, 2011
05:55 AM ET

Tell us what you think: iPhone secretly tracking your location?

(CNN) – Apple devices appear to be tracking their owners' locations and storing data about people's whereabouts without their knowledge, according to a report posted Wednesday on a site called iPhone Tracker.

The unauthorized surveillance started in June 2010, when the latest version of Apple's mobile operating system was released, according to two researchers who say they discovered a hidden tracking file and posted it out of concern for users.

Apple has not responded to the allegations.

Are you offended? Is this a big deal? Weigh in and we will read your responses during our 8:00a.m. ET hour.

The researchers have posted a program online that will let any iPhone user see a map of his or her location over time, going back to June, when iOS 4.0 was released.

The program's developers, listed as Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, say this data is stored on a person's iPhone or 3G-enabled iPad and on computers that are synced with those devices. There's no evidence, they say, that the data is also transmitted to Apple as it's collected.

"Cell phone providers collect similar data almost inevitably as part of their operations, but it's kept behind their firewall. It normally requires a court order to gain access to it, whereas this is available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone or computer," they write.

"By passively logging your location without your permission, Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements."

The location data appear to be collected at random intervals over time, using cell phone towers to triangulate approximate locations, they write.

They say these data are stored in a file named "consolidated.db," and that it's "unclear" why Apple would collect this information.

"One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that's pure speculation. The fact that it's transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn't accidental," they write on the iPhone Tracker site.

Some iPhone users expressed outrage at the news.

Sam Biddle, an editor at Gizmodo, used the downloadable program to map out his recent whereabouts, which he says was a frightening experience.

"This is a map of everywhere I've been for the last months. Everywhere," he writes on that tech site. "I didn't carry around a tracking device. The FBI isn't sending goons in unmarked vans to track me. All I did was use an iPhone."

He adds: "The data itself is jarringly accurate. Even though it appears to rely on tower triangulation rather than GPS pinpointing (meaning you're not safe with location services switched off), the map I was able to generate with mapping software the security duo released visualizes my life since the day I bought my iPhone 4 in July. Everywhere I've been. Bus trips home. Train trips to visit family. Vacations. Places I'd forgotten I'd even gone. Zoom in on that giant blotch over New York, and you can see my travels, block by block.

"My entire personal and professional life - documented by a phone I didn't know was also a tracking device. It's all accessible - where I've been, and when. I don't really have anything to hide, which is why I don't mind sharing the map. But it's just not right to have no choice in the matter; I don't want this information bouncing around in my pocket with me."

Others, including Forbes writer Kashmir Hill, wonder if this feature is "cool or creepy." She decides on "cool," writing that the program is "like a persistent, pervasive, secret location-diary."


Filed under: Controversy • Technology
soundoff (32 Responses)
  1. Margaret Cassens

    Why don't you and/or one of your group report on the secret junket
    that Harry Reid and 9 other senators took to Macau. They are spending
    taxpayer money to go on a trip to China. What a shame. Lets hear
    some reporting on this. They went for a trip on Friday...for fun and games.

    April 25, 2011 at 8:27 am |
  2. John M Holmes Jr

    By the way, I pulled the data out of both my 3GS and my iPad. I've made several road trips recently with both devices in the car with me and turned on.

    The iPad data is even less accurate than the 3GS data. It only shows major cities on the map but nothing along the highways in between them at all.

    I did discover that if you live in between Des Moines, IA and Kansas City that the 3GS data in between those two cities was non existent. Also there is no data in between St Louis, MO and Kansas City. I've made both of these drives numerous times within the past 6 months, so both of those areas should be shown. They are not.

    I have also read (years ago) that even my old Garmin Street Pilot 330 as well as most other stand alone GPS units contain this same data just like the iPhone. This has been pretty much the case all along.

    I think this is just another group of Apple haters trying to take down the company. It is common knowledge that the devices can function as a GPS just like their stand alone counterparts.

    April 23, 2011 at 8:11 am |
  3. John M Holmes Jr

    I actually pulled up the map using my Macbook since I travel for a living. I thought it would be interesting to see just how accurate the data is...

    Even in my own city of Wichita, KS, the coordinates are grossly inaccurate. It actually shows me at locations that I have never been to, including Hutchinson, KS and Newton, KS. I've never even had my devices any closer than 30 miles to either of those towns and yet both of those towns were peppered with dots showing where I had been...

    This is a non issue as far as I am concerned. If you're not doing anything you shouldn't be doing in the first place, what really is the big deal? I can understand why criminals, conspiracy theorists (birthers, tea party folks, etc), and people cheating on their spouses would be concerned though! LOL!

    April 23, 2011 at 8:01 am |
  4. klatu

    The DOJ is currently petitioning the Supreme Court for the right to use/obtain "warrantless GPS data. This was made public just a few days ago. I think the timing, and the juxtaposition is far too blatant to be a coincidence.

    April 22, 2011 at 5:07 pm |
  5. J Clark

    I got rid of my Iphone IMMEDIATELY. It's not that I have any worries about where I have been and when, but the principle of this info being accessible without my knowledge is a step too far.
    Apple has a major PR crisis on its hands.

    April 22, 2011 at 1:02 pm |
  6. Melissa

    This is downright scarry and I'm not sure which is worse – that this is allowed without your knowlege, that you cant "opt out" of it, or that people seem to be ok with it! Really people? I mean how much govt control are you willing to allow because all these baby steps we keep allowing are just heading to no good place!

    April 22, 2011 at 12:41 pm |
  7. Sylvan Jette

    Am I the only one to think that this is all very bias. Google Android, RIM and other Smart phones do exactly the same thing. This feels like some politician and journalist are not explicit themselves by only focusing on one company for their own purpose. This is also nothing new and was talked about and explained in July last year by both Apple and Google.

    Non-story...

    April 22, 2011 at 10:51 am |
  8. Ivitt

    I've been saying it the whole time, the US government can't physically chip everyone so they've given the public a irresistible product with the chip imbedded. Now it's in Millions of people's hands and the gov can have their way. Again.

    April 22, 2011 at 10:32 am |
  9. Richard Henry Brockman

    Who cares, anything that can tell me where a good cup of expresso is in terms of yards any place on this earth is great!

    April 22, 2011 at 10:23 am |
  10. George

    I cannot believe the comments I'm reading. In the wrong hands, which it will eventually get to if it hasn't already, this info can tell individuals when your not at home. Need I say more.

    April 22, 2011 at 9:57 am |
  11. cody williams

    you know what, i was thinking something funny was going on!

    One time i got a bill, and you know what!!?? They knew WHO i was calling, they knew HOW LONG i had talked, the knew WHAT TIME i had called at, and they even knew if it was LONG DISTANCE!!!

    what happened to privacy!! quit tracking me!

    hehe, for some of you tinfoil had people, this is pure sarcasm... get a life!

    April 22, 2011 at 9:35 am |
  12. Neil

    "Honest people with nothing to hide" is a blanket that provides a false comfort because; the majority of honest innocent people with nothing to hide, cannot fully predict how apparently benign information, can be compiled and dangerously manipulated by the sliver of human society who seek advantage at the expense of the unsuspecting.

    If you doubt my point, ponder how as a consequence of sinister motives; credit card receipts no longer show a full credit card number, the wisdom of shredding everyday documents like personal bank statement before it's disposed in the trash or how home computers now require firewalls & antivirus software to mitigate risks of phishing & Trojans. If sinister motivations to pray upon the innocent and unsuspecting didn't exist these realities (& others) wouldn't be required.

    Henry Kissinger said "information is power".

    If our free society doesn't continue to demand (via our elected officials & from the institution we deal with) upholding the principle of protecting every citizens' privacy, we'll forfeit a modern right that preceding generations shed blood to guarantee.

    Software installed on portable electronics devices, collecting a multitude of movements made by an individual (often unbeknownst by that person) is akin to a similar device recording the things you say or the things you look at in the course of your day.  Such information, can be manipulated so the burden of proof shifts from an accuser (perhaps with a less than honorable motive) to the accused - assumed to be innocent until proven guilty in a Court of Law!

    We must not allow cool & typically useful conveniences (BTW I'm typing this on a handheld device), to unwittingly undermine the freedoms we came to expect before the invention of software & microprocessor.

    April 22, 2011 at 9:28 am |
  13. Adam

    My concern with Apple collecting the data is that they will use it to sell ifo about me and where I frequent. It worries me that a company can collect data on me without my knowledge or consent. Keeping all of that data on each iphone user is a huge problem because you never know who may have or may obtain the information.

    April 22, 2011 at 9:25 am |
  14. Alexander

    Not any real surprise. After the Patriot Act the government has been doing more than just log our locations and with bad intentions, unlike Apple. Unless your involved in criminal activity... what's the big deal really? It's not like anyone randomly can access your filea especially not if you encrypt your phones back-up. Unless of course you are unlucky enough to lose your phone to a professional hacker but that's a stretch. Besides like previously stated, unless your a criminal, cheater, or have done something wrong, what use is this information to someone random who happens to find your lost phone?

    April 22, 2011 at 8:59 am |
  15. Frank

    It probably going to be use in the future to get small and large stores and whoever to run ads on the cell phone.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:52 am |
  16. Gene

    Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:48 am |
  17. Gerry

    Android-based devices also create similar location logs. Law enforcement has known about these logs for over a year, and companies market software to them, to extract this location information. I think the news media should investigate if law enforcement has pressured the manufacturers to include these tracking logs.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  18. Frank

    I like the idea that police can use this for good. To locate missing or whereabouts of people.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:44 am |
  19. No thanks

    This might have been a big deal back when it was first discovered a year ago.

    Fear mongerers.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  20. Redman

    Fools, tracking your location is nothing and small potatoes compared to the practice of storing of all your conversations that you place on cell phones and other communication devices. If you are a person of interest your calls are actively monitored by a live person in real time. Turning the device off does not end the location detection, only the conversations acquired from your loose lips.

    Big Brother is indeed listening and tracking... but he is not alone. So is Big Daddy, Big Mother, Big Uncle, Big Auntie, and all their brothers, sisters, cousins plus the companies they have hired to do the job.

    Quit whining. This is what we asked for when we passed the Patriot act.

    April 22, 2011 at 8:40 am |
  21. Deborah Benton

    I feel like Big Brother is watching. Look for the police and courts to start using this device to pinpoint activity by suspected criminals, by spouses verifying suspicious activity, etc. We gave up our privacy when we joined facebook – this just adds to it.

    April 22, 2011 at 7:20 am |
  22. AgileSpider

    It isn't good that so many people didn't know about this, so at least the information is now in the public domain fully now. But as grown adults that can read, for it to be a surprise and not really be abreast of the way the world and data co-exist these days is a little concerning.

    I don't think people really need to worry too much, just be aware that your iPhone (or any Smart Phone) may contain this type of data. Realistically most people have far more revealing data in their contacts and SMS messages. All of which is as easily obtainable as this tracking data.

    My only concern is that it maybe nice if data like this was not so easily obtainable by others and encrypted. You can be sure that all smart devices do similar things, but some may hide the data slightly better.

    People should check-out Pete Warden's iPhoneTracker (http://petewarden.github.com/iPhoneTracker/) (the 'research' in question) to see what the fuss is about. They can save some time by extracting their consolidated.db files using the free version of the software at http://www.iphonebackupextractor.com. You can extract the file right into his app.

    Its quite fun really, although only my GPS data is accurate, the triangulation from telecomms masts are sometimes miles out. Am I worried about this information being on my iPhone... no is the answer.

    April 22, 2011 at 7:19 am |
  23. Jim Simmons

    This would be a great app in the App store to purchase if you wanted it. To have it forced on you without concent, and without the ability to disable it should be criminal.

    April 22, 2011 at 7:11 am |
  24. Michael M Clarke

    I use the Android.

    Are these people stupid? The day I turned this phone on IT ASKED ME for permission to turn on the GPS. Several programs I use, utilize the GPS for services I use. How do you think all those cool service worked? Every one of those services notify the user about tracking the user's location. What is the big deal?

    This is a non-story.

    April 22, 2011 at 7:09 am |
  25. Matt

    I don't like this one bit but what can we do to stop it? I don't want a record stored of my locations and it's not right for apple to do this without permission. I love apple hardware but I hate the way they do things.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:56 am |
  26. Philip

    I don't think it should come as a surprise, the concern with this data is if someone steals your laptop, phone or somehow manages to get to this information and then use it against you. Not all the data is relevant, mine for instance has me in Nevada (I haven't been there in 20+ years) and has me north of Baltimore (I haven't been less that 30 miles away from Baltimore for several years now). The bigger concern is that more than just Apple is keeping track of this information, Google uses it for traffic, I'm sure AT&T/Verizon/T-Mobile/Etc... all keep some sort of logging on you. The possible difference is that the logging they keep on you doesn't come with a treasure trove of personal information (including where you live and work).

    How could someone use the information against you? Well there's the obvious, the Police are wondering where you were on the night of August 11, 2010... or your spouse is wondering why you're always late coming home... or someone wants to know when you're most likely NOT going to be home so they can break into your house (if they have your phone, now they have your movement habits, your office number, your home address, your playlist, etc... )

    I think in the end this should be considered not a personal tracking issue, but possibly a security hole that should be filled with the next iOS update.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:52 am |
  27. Butch Yon

    Not a big deal that it's there, since no one has access to the information unless you give it to them, or they physically get their hands on your phone. Apparently there is also a way to disable the function. Should Apple have forewarned iPhone owners that it is there? ABSOLUTELY! On the other hand, I can see certain instances where the information could even be helpful if some investigators were trying to solve a crime, especially if the iPhone owner was murdered and they were trying to find out where the victim had been before the crime.
    Just a few thoughts. Hmmm...wonder if my Android phone has that feature built-in? 😉

    April 22, 2011 at 6:46 am |
  28. ladydetectiveagency.com

    This is nothing new, although would love to know how to retrieve the information...could save us LOTS of time and our clients money!

    April 22, 2011 at 6:45 am |
  29. Inbred sloppy joe

    I don't care, i am not a criminal nor i cheat on my wife, i have nothing to hide, having said that, i don't think is apple's busines (or anybody's for that matter) to know where i go or don't go.

    April 22, 2011 at 6:40 am |
  30. Michael Lawson

    now if you look at the apple website it openly shows you that there is a tracking device that allows you where your phone is at all times this is in case of it getting lost or stolen. now there is also apps that allow you to see where your friends and you are at all times. this is not a secret people who just don't read the information about such activities just aren't reading into the product they are buying

    April 22, 2011 at 6:36 am |
  31. Briston

    Hey, if you're ever accused of a crime, you can use this app to clear your name. The Bluetooth shall set you free!

    April 22, 2011 at 6:24 am |
  32. Cary Sherburne

    Not so secret. What did you THINK would happen with all that data? Let's get real here

    April 22, 2011 at 6:00 am |