Q-and-A: Smartphone location tracking

Apr 24, 2011 By JORDAN ROBERTSON , AP Technology Writer

The revelation this past week that Apple Inc.'s popular iPhone and iPad devices keep files of users' location data raises legal and ethical questions.

The company has not commented on the controversy, but has said that the only location data the company collects is kept anonymous and not able to be tied back to specific users. Google Inc. has said the same about location data that is stored on smartphones that run its Android software. Both companies have maintained that the practice is clearly outlined in their .

Here's a look at what the issue means for you, and what you can do to protect your , as well as the trade-offs in convenience that that entails.

Q: What is collecting?

A: Technically, Apple itself is collecting very little. According to a letter that the company sent Congress last year, Apple only collects information on the location of nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi networks. It says that data is anonymized so that it isn't tied to a particular user's phone. However, researchers have discovered that iPhones and iPads do store individuals' geographic coordinates - and have been for at least a year.

Q: What's happens to that information?

A: The information appears to stay on the devices themselves, but is also transferred to any computers that the devices are synced to. That concerns security experts because the information is transferred in an unencrypted form, which makes it a target for hackers. Those who specialize in breaking in to Apple's products say it would be very difficult to steal the file remotely because of security changes that Apple has recently made to its software. However, anyone with physical access to the phone - including devices lost or stolen - could easily see the data.

Q: What can I do to prevent this information from being collected?

A: Fortunately, it's easy to turn off the tracking capability through the settings menus. The same goes for phones built on Inc.'s Android operating software. Unfortunately, doing so cripples a lot of applications that make smartphones "smart" in the first place, such as maps and the Foursquare social media service. Turning off tracking means those applications won't have access to your GPS locations either, making them useless.

Q: What are lawmakers doing about such tracking?

A: For now, few rules apply. The Federal Communications Commission prohibits telephone companies from sharing customer data, including location information, with outside parties without customer consent. Yet those rules do not apply to Apple and other device makers or to the new ecosystem of mobile apps made by third-party developers. What's more, because those rules were written for old-fashioned telephone service, it's unclear whether they apply to mobile broadband service at all - even for wireless carriers like AT&T and Verizon. The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission say they are looking into the issue.

Explore further: Alibaba steals Yahoo's thunder ahead of IPO

5 /5 (1 vote)
add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Your Phone, Yourself: When is tracking too much?

Apr 24, 2011

(AP) -- If you're worried about privacy, you can turn off the function on your smartphone that tracks where you go. But that means giving up the services that probably made you want a smartphone in the first ...

Apple slammed over iPhone, iPad location tracking

Apr 21, 2011

(AP) -- Privacy watchdogs are demanding answers from Apple Inc. about why iPhones and iPads are secretly collecting location data on users - records that cellular service providers routinely keep but require a court order to d ...

Pandora subpoenaed in information-sharing inquiry

Apr 04, 2011

Online radio service Pandora has received a subpoena from a federal grand jury investigating whether popular smartphone applications share information about their users with advertisers and other third parties.

Recommended for you

New US-Spanish firm says targets rich mobile ad market

5 hours ago

Spanish telecoms firm Telefonica and US investment giant Blackstone launched a mobile telephone advertising venture on Wednesday, challenging internet giants such as Google and Facebook in a multi-billion-dollar ...

Technip, Heerema win third giant Angolan oil contract

8 hours ago

The ultra-deep Angolan offshore oil project called Kaombo generated the third huge contract in three days on Wednesday when French group Total picked two firms to carry out underwater engineering worth $3.5 billion.

Yahoo sees signs of growth in 'core' (Update)

22 hours ago

Yahoo reported a stronger-than-expected first-quarter profit Tuesday, results hailed by chief executive Marissa Mayer as showing growth in the Web giant's "core" business.

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Doug_Huffman
not rated yet Apr 24, 2011
iPhone, don't leave home with it. G00gle lied, people died (worked against Bush, why not G00gle?)

More news stories

Quantenna promises 10-gigabit Wi-Fi by next year

(Phys.org) —Quantenna Communications has announced that it has plans for releasing a chipset that will be capable of delivering 10Gbps WiFi to/from routers, bridges and computers by sometime next year. ...

Floating nuclear plants could ride out tsunamis

When an earthquake and tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant complex in 2011, neither the quake nor the inundation caused the ensuing contamination. Rather, it was the aftereffects—specifically, ...

Unlocking secrets of new solar material

(Phys.org) —A new solar material that has the same crystal structure as a mineral first found in the Ural Mountains in 1839 is shooting up the efficiency charts faster than almost anything researchers have ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

(Phys.org) —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

How kids' brain structures grow as memory develops

Our ability to store memories improves during childhood, associated with structural changes in the hippocampus and its connections with prefrontal and parietal cortices. New research from UC Davis is exploring ...

Gate for bacterial toxins found

Prof. Dr. Dr. Klaus Aktories and Dr. Panagiotis Papatheodorou from the Institute of Experimental and Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology of the University of Freiburg have discovered the receptor responsible ...