Apple Takes Credit For 'Uncovering' Its Patented Location 'Bug' That Isn't Really Tracking You, But Which It'll Fix

from the reality-distortion dept

Apple and Steve Jobs are semi-famous for the “reality distortion field” that sometimes comes with Apple product announcements. But can it do the same when it screws up. It took a week after the kerfuffle last week concerning iPhones and iPads storing your location for Apple to finally respond, and the full response is an amusing study in corporate doublespeak.

As far as I can tell, Apple’s key points are:

  1. Apple (not researchers, or tons of other people who have noted this “bug” for a year or so) “discovered” a bug with location data on the phone:

    The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly

  2. There’s no tracking going on. There’s nothing to see here.

    Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

  3. Even though there’s no tracking and nothing to see here, it’s still a bug which will be fixed.
  4. The reason people are concerned about this is because people are confused.

Got that? People are confused and there’s nothing to see here, but Apple has discovered a minor bug which will be fixed.

Oh, and did we mention that Apple has also applied for a patent on this particular “bug”?

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Comments on “Apple Takes Credit For 'Uncovering' Its Patented Location 'Bug' That Isn't Really Tracking You, But Which It'll Fix”

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56 Comments
umccullough (profile) says:

Re: Silver lining

“Wow, wouldn’t it be evil if we tracked the location of every iPhone out there, stored the data on the phone, and synchronized it with their computers for later retrieval, possibly useful for criminal investigations and illegal search and seizure purposes?

Damn, we gotta patent that shit before someone comes up with it… good thing we’re not that evil.”

Anonymous Coward says:

“The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it?s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location”

Oh, gee, thanks for clearing that up!

See, Apple isn’t tracking the fact that your location was Memphis, TN as of Monday at 9pm, and Dallas, TX as of Tuesday at 8am, just that the location of things you were close to were in Memphis, TN as of Monday at 9pm and Dallas, TX as of Tuesday at 8am.

Feel better now?

Michael Long (profile) says:

Re: Re:

They’re not tracking the fact that you were at Joe’s Bar at 123 Main Street in Memphis at Monday at 9pm. However, your phone knows that it was probably within a hundred miles of Memphis at Monday at 9pm.

Close enough for nuclear strike, I guess. And assuming, of course, that you didn’t “check in” to Joe’s when you arrived.

The data is needed to make the service work. It’s not specific to you. Its gathering was covered under the EULA.

And the Feds, if they were interested, could just go to the carrier with a warrentless location tap and track your precise location in real time.

This is a non-issue.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

I think the likelihood is that you were much closer than 100 miles.

Regardless, saying they weren’t tracking your location just because they are not tracking location with pinpoint accuracy is a butchering of the language.

Also, as Apple acknowledged, storing the data for the amount of time it was stored was/is not at all necesssary to make the service work.

I’m not sure how what the Feds could do with a warrant or what you willingly choose to do is relevant at all.

Your declaration that it is a “nonissue” doesn’t make it so.

Michael Long (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

So I was within 50 miles. Or twenty. Or even ten. So ****ing what?

As a recent TechCrunch article points out… “If [someone] stole/found your phone, couldn?t they also have access to information like your address, the addresses of friends/family, all your phone numbers, perhaps some passwords, maybe monetary information? Yes, but that?s not as sexy of a story.”

“Oh, and if your phone had any app like Foursquare, Gowalla, Loopt, etc, they could just open those apps and get all your actual location information without hacking the device? “

With all of that other information available, having a rough idea of the places you’ve been, stored on your own physical device that someone else would need access to… is a NON-ISSUE.

If you’re so concerned about not being tracked in this day in age, then do not carry ANY phone, because they all work the same way and use Shykook or Google to acquire location data. (Why the heck do you think they were recording WiFi information in their Google map cars?)

Where was I? Oh, yeah. Do not drive ANY car. Do not use ANY computer connected to the internet. Do not use ANY credit card, debit card, or store loyalty card.

Burn your wallet too, because if lost and found it could reveal your home address and the fact (via receipt) you were in a strip club last Tuesday night at 6:23 PM.

This is my last post on this, and as such, I’ll give the Anonymous Coward his chance to get in the last word….

umccullough (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

then do not carry ANY phone, because they all work the same way and use Shykook or Google to acquire location data.

I suspect you meant smartphone, but no matter, I don’t own/carry a cell phone. Check.

Do not drive ANY car.

I assume you mean cars with OnStar or GPS… I don’t have one of those. Check.

Do not use ANY computer connected to the internet.

I assume you mean: don’t login to a website using a computer in a location where you don’t want people to know you’re there… well yeah, fortunately I have a choice when using a computer to 1) not use the internet and 2) not do anything that identifies who I am (I can delete all cookies before connecting, I can route my traffic through a proxy, or use something like Tor – thank god for people who build privacy safeguards into these things eh?). As for using the internet at home/at work – I don’t care if people know I’m using it there, those are places that I am likely to be found anyway, and this information is already well known. Check.

Do not use ANY credit card, debit card, or store loyalty card.

Ah, right – I pay with cash most places these days, at least for small purchases. Nobody needs to know where I eat lunch every day, or shop for most items. Check.

Burn your wallet too, because if lost and found it could

At least I know what’s in my wallet at any given time – so I know precisely what information I’m about to give away if someone was to go through my wallet and/or find it after I lost it.

So… as you can see, there are some of us who actually *do* value our privacy moreso than others, and thus, we still reserve the right to actually comment on privacy-concerning issues.

You’ll note that I’m not an AC, because I don’t intend to hide my opinions.

David Liu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

At least I know what’s in my wallet at any given time – so I know precisely what information I’m about to give away if someone was to go through my wallet and/or find it after I lost it.
So clearly now that you know what’s on your iPhone, it’s a non-issue.

And please, to access the info on your phone, they’d need a Mac with XCode, and the prowess to use the app that extracts the information on your phone.

This info stays on your phone. So it’s just as private as all the things you do in your daily life to keep private.

HothMonster says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

“reveal your home address and the fact (via receipt) you were in a strip club last Tuesday night at 6:23 PM.”

Strippers give receipts? Can i write that off my taxes?

I agree though its not a HUGE deal, but then why not just be honest?
“Yes, we were gathering data on your phone. We did not store it on apples servers. We had plans to use that information to provide better services to you in the future. We realize the privacy concerns this data creates, we will now offer a way to opt out. We apologize for not being more open about this from the beginning”
There was that so hard.

Yeebok (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Given police use phone readers it’s quite possibly a scary prospect. I haven’t seen the data but it it’s recording enough data to triangulate (or better) your position and storing it for far longer than is remotely necessary: If you move around a lot there’ll be a ton of useless data but if you stay in the one area there will be a lot of repeated data. That apple has quietly tried to patent it certainly makes it seem questionable.
It’s definitely data that needs backing up and merging data from more than one device into one set of data.
Yep, move along, nothing to see here. Imagine if your location data was on the PSN..

Michael Long (profile) says:

So basically, it boils down to…

“This stuff is needed to make the silly thing work, but we’ll alter a few things because some idiots are making a big deal out of the fact that someone with physical access to your phone or computer can figure out you might have been within 100 miles of a given point sometime within the last year.”

“Oh, and to help build the list, we send an encrypted location and a list of visible towers and WiFi spots to an Apple server. This means that Apple absolutely, positively knows that one out of a hundred million iPhones was in that spot at that time.”

“All of which was covered in the EULA.”

That about sum it up?

VMax says:

Re: Re:

I work in logistics, using RFID. We have a system of multiple antennas in a warehouse. When we need to find an item we have them all read for the id. Then, based on antenna location and signal strength, we show where the item is. If you reverse that and show all the antennas are, and which one(s) are the best connection, I should be able to find where you are. The system took a month to design and implement with one person, so I don’t see how tracking a phone with the same info would be much different.
Agreed, the users did agree to a contract that they probably didn’t read with their lawyer, nor had any negotiating ability; but, hey, that’s their problem. Don’t buy a phone without your legal team, right?

Christopher Gizzi (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I’m an Apple fan so take what I’ll say with a grain of salt but…

At least Apple addressed the “controversy” with a statement. Google doesn’t say what it tracks and in these pages, we’ve discussed the weird tracking data they’ve obtained “by accident” or through questionable ways.

And, for what it’s worth… they outlined what they’re changing to address the concerns out there. Considering Apple has been more opt in than opt out, I’m siding with them on this.

They aren’t evil and they don’t have Google’s obsession with ads but they would use this data if it served their purpose, I’m sure. And there is spin in the PR that raised a few more questions than it answered. But it’s nowhere near as bad as their competitors.

Michael Long (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

Agreed! I hate the way they support locked down hardware, appropriate code, reject open source and block open source projects, record and misuse customer information, and arbitrarily toss developers and applications out of their app store. Why…

Wait? Apple? I thought we were talking about Google….

http://www.iSights.org/2011/04/hi-were-google-and-were-pretty-not-evil-1.html

Never mind.

HM says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

lol I love apple fan boys.

How about the way they use proprietary connections when there is a universal standard they have no reason not to use. Like the usb ports on the ipad, wait usb nonono buy this dongle for 80$s and then hook up a usb to that. Why isnt there a usb port on it…well then we couldnt sell dongles.

Apple makes good products, with good parts. Then sell them for 2x what they are worth because they have an apple logo on them.

Their software is fantastic if you want a heavily closed and restricted environment.

They will nickle and dime you for every dongle and proprietary accessory they can get away with.

To top it all off they like to lie when they get caught with their hand in the cookie jar. Just man up and say your sorry.

Google definitely stumbles in not being evil sometimes but at least they try not to be evil. But the question isn’t who is more evil or who makes a better product. The question is how long can Steve beat you without you realizing he doesn’t love you too and maybe this isnt a healthy relationship for you to be in.

AdamBv1 (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

Wow, wrong on all points here.

First of all Android does tell you that it will be tracking and using this information when you first turn on location services and then it holds a cache of some recent locations you have been at to help location based services lock on to your location faster. This cache is located only on the phone and can only be accessed by rooting your device.

iOS on the other hand logs your location even if you have location services disabled and this log never expires, in fact if you wipe your phone and then sync it with your computer it puts your old log back on the device. As mentioned the log is on the phone and requires jailbreaking it to access or you can pull the log off any computer the phone syncs to.

And you really have to be joking if you think Apple does not use location targeted advertising, its one of the points of their own iAd advertising and they almost kicked other advertisers who do location targeted advertising off their platform.

Reality Distortion Field operating at full power.

David Liu (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

http://techcrunch.com/2011/04/22/google-responds-to-smartphone-location-tracking-uproar-says-android-is-opt-in/

Doesn’t say anything about keeping a cache of my recent locations on my phone either. All I would be able to tell is that it uses some sort of magic to get a lock on my location without GPS.

And iAds is a bust; Apple is way less about giving your personal information away. See app store subscription policies on giving your information to publishers: Apple’s is opt-in, Google’s is opt-out.

Anonymous Coward says:

A ton of other people?

What bullshit Mike. We know of one researcher who commented (mostly in Apple’s favor) that he had known about this and even spoken and written about it last year. It wasn’t until last Wednesday that it blew up. Where are the techdirt posts from last year concerning this issue?

And the bug isn’t the database itself, but rather the amount it stores. It store 2 MBs worth of data, which is why you end up having data going back pretty much to when you first got iOS4 on the phone. That’s the bug they’re going to fix. And it is a bug. The iPhone does not need to store all those locations going back months and months. Their explanation is perfectly reasonable. What reason do you think they were keeping the data? To blackmail their customers? Or maybe Steve Jobs is really Batman and wants to use all the phones to track evil villains who threaten the city of Cupertino?

amp88 says:

Re: A ton of other people?

https://alexlevinson.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/3-major-issues-with-the-latest-iphone-tracking-discovery/

Yes Alex Levinson discovered consolidated.db nearly a year ago. After reading his blog, he did show proof that he mentioned consolidated.db in his book, but the short paragraph on it isn’t all that clear on what’s contained in the DB, just that it is “forensically rich”. Never the less, I’m guessing he briefed the law enforcement personnel he was peddling his forensic software to about the wealth of information available in consolidated.db

I’m also guessing he didn’t make it widely known because should the information get out to the general public and Apple be forced to plug the hole, his forensic software would suddenly become a little less useful to big brother.

Andreas says:

I read an interesting series of articles by someone better at analyzing the data than me who seems to think the ability to locate you is overblown. He pulled the data and compared to a rural bike ride (data points didn’t match route) and where he was at a certain time vs data points in an urban environment. The “shocking revelation” of Apple logging locations on an iPhone earns a “meh” from me.

http://www.willclarke.net/?p=278

What does concern me is apps that turn on the mic or camera without the user’s knowledge.

Anonymous Coward says:

“Apple (not researchers, or tons of other people who have noted this “bug” for a year or so) “discovered” a bug with location data on the phone”

Did they look at the iOS source to identify the actual bug? No, they looked at backups. So what “researchers, or tons of other people” found was a manifestation of a bug, not the defect itself. Apple is 100% correct stating they identified the bug; you just don’t like the semantics of it, but thankfully that’s a personal problem. Moreover, the bug at its core was storing location data for longer than expected, but that’s just RDF, right?

“There’s no tracking going on. There’s nothing to see here.

You know, because it was a defect which is being addressed.

The reason people are concerned about this is because people are confused. Got that? People are confused and there’s nothing to see here

From Apple’s statement, to which you linked: “Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”

So, you’re bashing Apple for taking responsibility for creating a technological environment that’s prone to end-user confusion? Nice point, Mike. Do you want me to hand you a straw, or do you want to continue violently grasping at them?

“Oh, and did we mention that Apple has also applied for a patent on this particular “bug”?

Try to review some of the serendipitous inventions below while you acknowledge the fact this would have been patented long ago had it been known by Apple, especially in this heated patent climate, but wait you already know that…

http://www.post-it.com
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microwave_oven
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penicillin
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polytetrafluoroethylene

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Once again…drink the kool-aid and lovingly put on your foil hat. The patent in question has no bearing on the bug just found. Really nice try though, really. But maybe if you weren’t a complete follower and actually had your own thoughts you might actually use your brain, read the article and make the determination yourself. But who cares right? You just want to bitch, whine and complain about the supposed follies of people much much smarter than you.

Rekrul says:

As much as I dislike Apple, I don’t see anything technically wrong with the statements that they made.

1. Apple (not researchers, or tons of other people who have noted this “bug” for a year or so) “discovered” a bug with location data on the phone:

The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly

They’re saying that they recently found the bug that is doing this, not that they were the ones to discover that such a bug existed.

2. There’s no tracking going on. There’s nothing to see here.

Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do
so.

The iPhone itself is tracking its location. The data isn’t being sent to Apple, so Apple isn’t tracking the location of your iPhone.

Jon B. (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

I keep hearing people say this but I can’t find any source… was the data being sent to Apple or not?

If not, then I guess I don’t really see the problem.

Still, I don’t understand why Apple continues to go out of its way to mislead, lie to, and demean its users. Apple’s commercials mislead and condescend. Apple’s conferences are misleading and condescending. Apparently Apple’s apologies are outright lies with some condescension thrown in… which seems totally unnecessary considering that (if Apple wasn’t receiving the data) wasn’t that big of a damned deal in the first place.

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