Breaking its silence about a hidden tracking file on iPhones brought to light last week, Apple (AAPL) acknowledged Wednesday that the file is part of a system that collects location data from iPhones and reports it back to the company.
But Apple said in a statement the data is used to enhance the performance of the phone and its applications, and does not track individual users. Further, it said, software bugs had caused iPhones to retain more data than was intended, and it promised a software fix for that problem.
Privacy advocates praised Apple for finally acknowledging the tracking file and promising to fix the bugs. But they criticized Apple and other companies in the mobile industry for not addressing the broader privacy concerns raised by devices such as the iPhone.
"I don't think Apple has come clean, I'm sorry," said Jeff Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, a consumer advocacy group. "They're tap-dancing around the core issue of how they use the iPhone user information -- including location -- for their mobile marketing network."
Tracking will continue
Privacy advocates pointed out that Apple acknowledged it has been collecting large amounts of data from users for use by location-based applications, to offer location-based advertisements and, in the future, to provide information about traffic conditions. They also noted that Apple implied that it will continue to do so. And the vast amounts of data being collected by application developers and mobile advertisers will continue, regardless of Apple's fix for the tracking file.
"They're trying to quell an understandable storm of concern," said John Simpson, director of the privacy project at Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group. But he added, "It sounds like they're going to continue doing a lot of stuff that is potentially problematic."
Apple has said that the data it collects is kept anonymous. And users are given the opportunity to opt out of having their location tracked by particular applications on Apple devices.
"Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy," the company said.
But opt-outs don't always work. Apple acknowledged Wednesday that due to a bug, the tracking file on its devices continued to log location data even when users' opted out of the phone's location services.
Even when opt-out systems work, consumers may not opt out because location services are a core feature of many useful applications, such as those that find and rate restaurants nearby. The problem, privacy advocates said, is that consumers often aren't told how their location and other information is being used or who has access to that data, and aren't given any control over that information once they opt in.
"No one is going to opt out of location targeting," Chester said. "That is a lame excuse coming from someone who should know better."
Privacy advocates such as Chester have been raising concerns for years about data collection by mobile devices. But the issue came to the forefront last week when two researchers at the Where 2.0 conference publicized their discovery of a tracking file on the iPhone that they said stores the locations of cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hot spots that the device interacts with. The file, which they said is on all Apple mobile devices running the latest version of the company's iOS software, contained data as much as a year old and could be accessed from computers synced to those iOS devices.
Forensics researchers later said they had known about the tracking file since early last year, and have been using the file in criminal and other legal cases.
Two software bugs
Apple didn't acknowledge the file's existence until Wednesday, when it said the data is used to help approximate an iPhone's location for mapping and other applications. The tracking file also helps the iPhone lock onto GPS satellites much more quickly than it would be able to do without it, the company said.
It blamed software bugs for the fact that the file currently stores up to a year's worth of data and continues to record data even when iPhone users turn off its location service, and promised to make a software fix "sometime in the next several weeks."
"We don't think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data" when users opt into the service, Apple said.
That Apple decided to fix the problem is "good news for privacy," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, another advocacy group. But given that forensics researchers had known about the file since last year, he added that Apple "probably should have gotten to it sooner."
Contact Troy Wolverton at 408-920-5021. Follow him at Twitter.com/troywolv.