It has been unveiled by researchers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan this week on the o'reilly radar, that the iPhone is actually tracking its location and storing it on in a database file that is updated and synced with the mac. As of know it is believed this feature has been put in with the iOS 4.0 update about a year ago.
Warden and Allan have discovered the file while poking around some log files in the backup of the iPhone data. The file appears to store about a years worth of location data amongst with cell and provider information. The actual values stored are time stamp, latitude, longitude, operator, country code and cell id. This is actually very detailed information on individual whereabouts over long term.
Image taken from peteWarden / Screen shot of the app visualising the data collected by the iPhone. Here a section of south east England with Warden's personal tracking data.
This data is exactly what the urbanDiary project has been collecting over two month using specialised GPS devices for very detailed tracking and now it appears that every iPone and iPad user has also been doing this. From the urbanDiary project it became clear how interesting this data is for urban research, but in a next step also very much for urban planning on many levels. Taking all these iPhone and iPad users together great information for the future planning of our cities will be available.
However, the discussion is obviously going completely the other way. Privacy and stalking concerns come first. On the Guardian Simon Davies, director of the pressure group Privacy International, said: "This is a worrying discovery. Location is one of the most sensitive elements in anyone's life – just think where people go in the evening. The existence of that data creates a real threat to privacy. The absence of notice to users or any control option can only stem from an ignorance about privacy at the design stage."
So far it is unclear whether someone other than the owner has access to the data, more concrete whether the file is being submitted to Apple or any third party. Allan and Warden point out that they haven't found anything pointing in this direction. However they point out that the information is not being stored accidentally and it is stored unencrypted.
However, the data stored on the iPhone is nothing new. Every service provider stored this information as part of the service. They even had the data of all the users they serve, where as in comparison the iPhone only stores its own information. But the provider data is protected and it takes a court order to access it.
Allan and Warden have put together a software that will find your tracing data on the computer hardrive (if you are an iPhone or iPad users on iOS4) and visualises it for you as shown above or in the clip below. They promis not to transmit any data and that it al happens locally. You are in compete controle of the data and the visualisation. Their page discusses the topic at length with a good Q&A section at the bottom. However, it seem to have a bit of a conservative touch with a strong focus on the concerns around the fact that it has been tracking. So far however, it seem unlikely that someone else has had access tot he data unless they had access tot he computer and if they did there might be much more delicate information they had access to than the location information of your whereabouts. For example the list of your passwords with your online banking details or your correspondence.
There have been speculations about this sort of tracking but there were mainly concerns about some apps installed on the iPhone and that they would transmit the location information to a central server without letting the user know. This would be more of a concern since with the app providers there is a lot less controle and trust than there might be with on big company providing the system.
Image taken from FastCompany / Watch a Cell Phone Company Stalk a Customer. That's every single movement, text, and phone call by Green Party politician Malte Spitz, collected by Deutsche Telekom.
The German newspaper 'Die Zeit' run a story on the tracking data a German politician was able to get from the mobile service provider complaining abou them tracking his moves. And indeed the information is very accurate and also over a long term, six month, similar to the iPhone data. Also TomTom have been collecting the tracking information of all their SatNav users over the past five years. It is at the moment and most likely for the near future the baseline that the location information is going to feature as the main concern of both user and provider. We will see a lot more of these unveilings of location information being stored, transmitted and used. This will be how the twenties in 2000 will be remembered, as the location times.