Exactly What Does Your iPhone or iPad Record About You?

Your Apple devices are tracking your locations and keeping records. How worried should you be?

The revelation today that Apple iPhones and 3G-enabled iPads tracks and logs users' locations in an easily accessed file has created quite a stir. But how serious of a threat to your privacy is this data and who could be using it?

The first thing to know is that the data is not nearly as accurate as you might be imagining. The best guess of the researchers who discovered the data is that information on cell towers is collected rather than the more specific data that would come from the iPhone's GPS. This means that the phone or iPad "only" tracks you to the nearest tower instead of to within a few feet. (Apple still hasn't responded directly about then entire issue.)

The data on my phone certainly seems to support that theory. Here's what my usage in the New York City area looks like when mapped with the iPhone Tracker app:

However, if I wasn't supposed to be flying out of JFK Airport in Queens, the screenshot clearly shows that I was there or near there multiple times. However, the exact spot can't be pinpointed.

So, in highly compact areas like major cities, it'll be hard to pull personal details out from the collected date. Even though the location data is time-stamped, you'd be hard-pressed to figure out exactly where I live or work, for instance, since the cell towers my phone connects to cover so many blocks.

The location logs also seem to go a bit crazy sometimes when the phone is having problems getting a signal. This further muddies the data.

The problem is that the farther out you get from large cities and the more distance you travel, the less these things matter. While my life in San Francisco would be a bit hard to read from just this data, a recent trip to Texas was logged in exacting (and easily readable) detail as my phone passed from tower to tower.

Who Has Your Data?

We've got good news and bad news. The good news is that at the moment there's no indication that Apple is collecting this data from your phone remotely.

The bad news is that it would be fairly simple for Apple, or anyone else who was interested for that matter, to access the files from your phone or from the backed-up iPhone data on your computer. Hopefully Apple will take steps to close this security hole and provide some answers to why this data was being stored in the first place but, as smartphones become more and more location-aware, these issues become all too common. The files are unencrypted and relatively easy to locate.

Just about the only security they had at all is that, up until today, almost no one knew these files existed. That security is now gone.

Join the newsletter!

Or

Sign up to gain exclusive access to email subscriptions, event invitations, competitions, giveaways, and much more.

Membership is free, and your security and privacy remain protected. View our privacy policy before signing up.

Error: Please check your email address.

Tags privacyApplePhonesconsumer electronicsapple iphoneapple ipad

Keep up with the latest tech news, reviews and previews by subscribing to the Good Gear Guide newsletter.

David Daw

PC World (US online)
Show Comments

Most Popular Reviews

Latest Articles

Resources

PCW Evaluation Team

Tom Pope

Dynabook Portégé X30L-G

Ultimately this laptop has achieved everything I would hope for in a laptop for work, while fitting that into a form factor and weight that is remarkable.

Tom Sellers

MSI P65

This smart laptop was enjoyable to use and great to work on – creating content was super simple.

Lolita Wang

MSI GT76

It really doesn’t get more “gaming laptop” than this.

Jack Jeffries

MSI GS75

As the Maserati or BMW of laptops, it would fit perfectly in the hands of a professional needing firepower under the hood, sophistication and class on the surface, and gaming prowess (sports mode if you will) in between.

Taylor Carr

MSI PS63

The MSI PS63 is an amazing laptop and I would definitely consider buying one in the future.

Christopher Low

Brother RJ-4230B

This small mobile printer is exactly what I need for invoicing and other jobs such as sending fellow tradesman details or step-by-step instructions that I can easily print off from my phone or the Web.

Featured Content

Product Launch Showcase

Don’t have an account? Sign up here

Don't have an account? Sign up now

Forgot password?