Apple iPhone tracks users' location in hidden file
Published 21/04/2011 | 10:29
Apple iPhone users’ movements are being tracked and stored without their knowledge in a file that could easily be accessed by a snooping employer or jealous spouse, security researchers have found.
The continually-updated log is held on both the iPhone and the computer it connects to and contains a list of coordinates, and associated timestamps.
The records go back to the release of the fourth iteration of the iOS operating system in June last year.
The true contents of the enigmatically-named file “consolidated.db” were discovered by two British software developers who were working on ways of visualising location data for websites.
“At first we weren’t sure how much data was there, but after we dug further and visualised the extracted data, it became clear that there was a scary amount of detail on our movements,” said Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden. Mr Warden previously worked for Apple in an unrelated area.
Mobile network operators keep records of users’ movements based on which masts they are connected to, which police and intelligence agencies can access legally.
The data stored by the iPhone could however be accessed by anyone with access to it or the computer it connects to, and is not protected by a password or encryption.
Mr Allan and Mr Warden have set up a website to publicise their findings and allow iPhone users to test whether their movements are being recorded.
To further highlight the issue they have developed a simple application that plots the coordinates and timestamps on web-based mapping software.
Apple’s reason for recording the data is unclear and its spokesmen did not return calls requesting comment.
“One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that’s pure speculation,” said the researchers, adding that the way the data is copied between the iPhone and computer indicated it was not gathered accidentally.
Other technology giants including Facebook and Google encourage users to hand over location data partly because it is potentially valuable to advertisers.
Dr Ian Brown, a senior research fellow at the Oxford Internet Institute, said: “I certainly think it's something they should have brought much more to the attention of the user, and that it should only be switched on after an explicit user decision.”
Daniel Hamilton, director of the privacy lobby group Big Brother Watch said: “iPhone users will rightly be concerned that their movements are being covertly monitored in this way.
“Apple has a duty to immediately provide their customers with details about how to disable this invasive software."