A Look at iPhone Tracking Information

UPDATE: Wired Magazine covers why Apple is collecting this data here. Their reporting relies on Apple’s written response to congressional members here.

BoingBoing, Al Franken, and Slashdot (here and here–the latter says don’t panic and here–Android does it too) have all rang the alarum bells over Apple’s iOS 4’s storing information about where owner’s go while carrying their mobile devices. That information is stored on your iPhone and your computer (when the iPhone is connected to the computer for updates or syncing). Apparently, Apple has not used this information for any purpose yet, but the question stands: “Why collect this kind of personal information?”

Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden created an open source program that graphically demonstrates the information that iOS collects on the iPhone, albeit at lower resolution than what is actually stored in the database file. Their iPhone Tracker application can be downloaded from here. I used this app to generate the image above of my own movements since I installed iOS 4 on my iPhone 3GS. It looks pretty accurate to me–conferencing, vacationing, and schooling are all there.

My suspicion mirrors others that I have read that this could be a feature for a future release of iOS, but Apple wanted the data accumulated so that the feature would be immediately useful. However, I wonder: could this data collection be related to the MobileMe iPhone tracking service? Could location information be stored on the phone and retrieved when needed? If this is the case, why is it always collecting data? Does this make it easier or more assured that Apple can obtain information on a phone’s whereabouts without also have to remotely switching this data collection on? Whatever the reason, Apple will have to respond to the outcry since folks tend to not like being followed in a sense. However, The New York Times has already gone on record that cell phone companies track our movements anyways, but that didn’t seem to get the same level of attention that the iPhone issue did. I suppose that the difference is that we can see what the iPhone does, but we cannot see what cell phone companies do with the data that they collect of each of us who use and carry their phones. Personally, I am more concerned about the cell phone companies than the iPhone’s geo-data collection, but both are dubious rights issues that must be dealt with as this technology is further integrated into our lives and daily practices.

Published by Jason W. Ellis

I am an Associate Professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY whose teaching includes composition and technical communication, and research focuses on science fiction, neuroscience, and digital technology. Also, I coordinate the City Tech Science Fiction Collection, which holds more than 600 linear feet of magazines, anthologies, novels, and research publications.