Turns out, anyone who has access to your iPhone can track your whereabouts for the last year due to a technical bug. This week, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced that Apple will release a software fix for the problem. Wired's Brian Chen discusses the public's reaction to the revelation and Senator Al Franken talks about a congressional investigation into privacy issues in mobile devices.
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BOB GARFIELD: Bilton mentioned location tracking. Now, there’s an issue that’s au courant.
[CLIP FROM SOUTH PARK]:
MAN: Yeah, Apple stuff’s pretty neat, all right. I just don't want any big company tracking where I am at all times.
KYLE: Nah, that’s just a rumor. They don't really track you.
MAN: Here he is!
[MUSIC UP AND UNDER] Hello, Kyle, we're from Apple. We're all ready for you now.
KYLE: What? Ready for what?
MAN: To fulfill the agreement. Can we get a weight, please? Eighty-three pounds, sir.
KYLE: What agreement?
MAN: Eighty-three pounds. Good. Let’s get the blood work.
KYLE: Hey, you can’t do that!
MAN: You agreed we could take all the blood we needed.
KYLE: What are you talking about?
MAN: When you downloaded the last iTunes update, a window on your screen popped up and asked you if you agreed to our terms and conditions, you clicked “Agree.” All right, let's get him to the water tank.
KYLE: The water tank? I'm not going with you.
MAN: You've agreed to all of this!
BOB GARFIELD: That was the TV show South Park satirizing the revelation last week that Apple iPhones stored data about their users’ location, data that remains on the phones indefinitely, something that iPhone users unknowingly sign up for. That means that if you bought an iPhone after July 2008, anyone can plug your phone into a computer and, with a program that’s free online, see a map of everywhere you've been. Wired’s Brian Chen explains how this works and why companies like Apple collect that information.
BRIAN CHEN: Every time you're taking out your iPhone and you’re using a location service, you are collecting information about nearby wi-fi access points and also cellphone towers, and you’re storing that information inside your phone. Every 12 hours you collect all this information and you send it as a batch to Apple. Apple collects this information as a comprehensive location database. They're saying if you want to locate where you are, first you’re pulling information from their database and then you’re using the GPS chip. With just the GPS chip alone it would take several minutes just to get your location.
BOB GARFIELD: However, this data, once its gone to Apple, just stays on my cell phone and that creates a security risk, does it not?
BRIAN CHEN: Yes, this is the root of the issue that’s been talked about since last week, the fact that this information stays on your phone after it’s transmitted to Apple. It has no reason to be there. It’s not providing you a service, once it stays on your phone. Like say, for example, I went to Vegas in January. That information right now does not help me in any way today. So Apple said it was a bug and they're going to be fixing that in the next software update.
BOB GARFIELD: The story broke and some people paid very close attention. For example, Senator Al Franken paid attention and announced the intention to hold a hearing on mobile privacy.
BRIAN CHEN: I think the issue right now is that this entire geo-collection method wouldn't have snowballed so much if Apple had been transparent from the start. When I use my iPhone and I turn on the location-based services, there’s no message indicating that I'm collecting information about nearby cell towers and wi-fi access points and I'm storing it and giving it to Apple. Apple’s going to need to figure out how they can communicate that more clearly in the future, I think. Something that I think people in Congress want definitely is just enabling people not only to know this information but also to be able to turn it off.
BOB GARFIELD: Seems to me iPhone ownership is not just a customer base; it’s on the verge of being a cult. And I was struck by the fact that when this security risk was identified, it didn't seem to upset many people, besides Al Franken. Did it strike you that there was a kind of muted response to this episode?
BRIAN CHEN: I find that a lot of iPhone customers are already sharing a lot of information about things, like where they are, what they're doing, what they're eating. To a lot of people, having a trail of what you've been doing for the past year, it wasn't really an issue for them. They weren't sensitive to things like being stalked or being robbed. But Apple admitted that this was a bug, that it should not have been stored this way. And if we're just to be apathetic about these sorts of issues, then these problems are never going to be corrected. So it’s good that people in Congress, people in the Senate are trying to take action and demand more transparency from Apple because if we just sit around, then these problems are just never going to be solved.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, Brian. Thank you.
BRIAN CHEN: Cool. Thanks a lot.
BOB GARFIELD: Brian Chen writes for Wired Magazine. His book, Always On, about our always-connected mobile future, comes out in June.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: Basically what this committee is about is making sure that our privacy laws keep pace with technology.
BOB GARFIELD: Senator Al Franken is chairman of the Judiciary Subcommittee for Privacy, Technology and the Law.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: There have been some issues of late – the Apple thing is just the latest – of mobile devices and privacy.
BOB GARFIELD: There’s a quid pro quo here. When people are surrendering their privacy, in whatever increments, they're also getting benefits. How does the Congress or how do executive branch regulators deal with the privacy issue, without killing the goose that lays the golden egg, both for advertisers and for users themselves?
BOB GARFIELD: Well, Senator Franken, thank you very much.
SENATOR AL FRANKEN: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Al Franken is the Democratic senator from Minnesota.