iPhone Tracking Function Sparks Controversy

April 21, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015
A shopkeeper shows golden accessories of Iphone at a shopping mall on March 25, 2011 in Qingdao, China.  (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)
A shopkeeper shows golden accessories of Iphone at a shopping mall on March 25, 2011 in Qingdao, China. (ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images)

The iPhone and 3G iPad were recently discovered to have a tracking function which can locate the device and record its location, in a study done by researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden of O’Reilly Radar. The finding has raised concern from the public, particularly iPhone users and politicians, regarding privacy issues.

According to the study, the devices are constantly keeping a list of locations and time stamps in a hidden file named consolidated.db ever since iOS 4 debuted approximately a year ago. The researchers also say that Apple’s collection of the data is intentional, and it has stored the information in backups.

The data is unencrypted and can be accessed on the device itself or any machine that has been synched with the device.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) have sent letters asking Apple about the report and the hidden file, according to Bloomberg.

Although the existence of such a file is unnerving for iPhone users around the globe, the researchers have stated that there is no evidence that the data is being shared with others, nor is there evidence that Apple is planning to use the data for any purpose. Also, the data can only be accessed easily with the device at hand, which means that the data is safe if users do not lose the device.

John Gruber from Daring Fireball suggests that the tracking log is a bug or an oversight since the data is collected from cell phone towers and is somewhat inaccurate. However, if the tracking was indeed a bug, Apple still has chosen not to fix it since the consolidated.db file was revealed in other studies months ago, according to PC World.

David Pogue of the New York Times also wrote that the iPhone tracking scare may be exaggerated, as the file is very difficult to access by common users. He also points out that users have agreed to some extent that Apple may access their location when using an iPhone.

The researchers suggest that worried iOS 4 users encrypt their backups on iTunes. Gizmodo also features an application called Untrackerd, which cleans out the consolidated.db file.