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Apple Breaks its Silence on Location-gate, Plans To Ship White iPhone on Thursday

Apple on Wednesday responded to concerns over location-based information captured and sent from the iPhone and other devices, insisting that it never tracks its users, but the company also said it plans to make changes to the way the iPhone stores location information in a forthcoming software update.

In a statement, Apple said that it was a bug that caused the iPhone to store location data even on phones when a user chose not to enable location services. In a separate statement, Apple said it plans to start selling the long-delayed white version of the iPhone 4 on Thursday. It will come in both Verizon and AT&T versions and sell for the same price as its darker-hued sibling.

As part of Apple’s statement on the location issue, the company clarified that the device is not tracking the user’s location specifically, but rather caching data that can help speed the process of locating the user in the future. However, the company said it doesn’t need to store as much location information as it has been and plans to change this with a forthcoming software update. That update, due in the coming weeks, will also address the issue of location information being stored on devices that have elected to keep location services turned off.

“The iPhone is not logging your location,” Apple said. “Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.”

The company said that doing so is better than just trying to locate the phone using GPS data alone, which can take up to several minutes.

“(The) iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements),” Apple said. “These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.”

The company said that the fact that a year or more worth of that data was kept on the phone was also a bug and said that it doesn’t think it needs to keep more than seven days’ worth of information. It plans to change that with the forthcoming software update. In the next major update of the iPhone operating system it will also start encrypting this data, it said.

Apple said it is also using the data in aggregate to build traffic maps.

“Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years,” Apple said.

Google has also come under fire over the information that it receives from Android devices. However, it noted on Friday that it only gets information from users who opt-in to location-based products. Google also maintains that the data it gets, although linked to an individual device, is not tied to a user’s account or other personal information.

Apple customers reacted with a mixture of outrage and excitement last week to the revelation that their iPhones (and 3G-equipped iPads) have been storing a record of everywhere they had been. While some bemoaned the potential privacy concerns around such information, others rushed to use a program that let them visualize the data, with many of those opting to share that information on Twitter, blogs and other spots on the Internet.

Since then, regulators and privacy experts across the globe have begun asking questions, questions that until now Apple had yet to answer.

Here’s Apple’s full statement on location services.

Apple would like to respond to the questions we have recently received about the gathering and use of location information by our devices.

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

2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.

3. Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).

5. Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?
This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.

7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?
It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).

8. What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

9. Does Apple currently provide any data collected from iPhones to third parties?
We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them).

10. Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important?
Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.

Software Update

Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

-reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
-ceases backing up this cache, and
-deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.


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