Data Protection Commissioner asks Apple to explain iPhone tracker

22 Apr 2011

The Data Protection Commissioner Billy Hawkes has called on Apple to explain why 3G iPhones and iPads track users’ locations without permission.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Hawkes pointed out that buyers should have been made aware of this feature.

Ireland’s Data Protection Commissioner is not the only one who has made an inquiry into this. According to the New York Times, Data Protection Commissioners in Italy and France raised concerns.

The NYT also reported Apple had sent a letter two US congressmen – Democrat Edward J Markey and Republican Joe L Barton – confirming it had been storing and collecting location data anonymously.

The company said it only did this when consumers agreed to use its location-based services and other apps which ask for a location. As well as this, the company collects location data for its advertising system, iAds.

Markey sent a follow-up letter asking Apple to explain why it stored this information on the user’s device and said that this practice could infringe the Communications Act.

iPhone and iPad tracking

Earlier in the week, two researchers said they discovered Apple had been storing the user’s location on 3G-enabled iPhones and iPads running iOS 4 in a hidden database within their devices.

This database contains latitude-longitude co-ordinates of where the user has been, along with a time stamp for each location.

The file also appears on any computer these mobile devices sync up to and is unencrypted. Both researchers released an app to help users visualise this information.

Other researchers claim this information has been known for some time. Alex Levinson of Katana Forensics said this has been used by law enforcement agencies during investigations. He also said law enforcement agencies can get more precise location information from mobile carriers, though these require a court order to obtain.

Levinson said iOS 4 only changed the location of this database, but it had existed on previous versions. He also suspected that Apple was using this data to pinpoint a phone faster to save bandwidth and battery life while it ran location-based services.