Apple Is Tracking You To Build Something Very Valuable: Its Location Database

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Your iPhone tracks you everywhere you go, and so do most phones these days. You knew that already. The reason this is a big story now is because it turns out that for the past 10 months Apple has been keeping your location data on a file in your iPhone itself where someone who knows how to get it, and has possession of your phone, could find it and figure out where you’ve been. For most people this is never going to be an issue, but for anyone involved in a lawsuit or nasty divorce, it is one more thing lawyers will be getting a subpoena for. It’s bad data retention policy and Apple could and should change it with the next update to iOS.

But what is Apple doing with your location data anyway? It needs your data to build its own location database for use with geo-location apps and for diagnostics (it helps analyze where dropped calls happen the most, for instance). Apple already explained all of this back in July, 2010 when general counsel Bruce Sewell responded to questions from Congress about its location-tracking policies (letter embedded below). In that letter, Apple revealed that it had replaced the location databases it was using previously from Google and SkyHook Wireless with its own. Apple noted in the letter:

These databases must be updated continuously to account for, among other things, the ever-changing physical landscape, more innovative uses of mobile technology, and the increasing number of Apple’s customers. Apple has always taken great care to protect the privacy of its customers.

And in fact, Apple doesn’t track a person’s location if they turn Location Services off in settings, and it takes care to remove personally identifying information and encrypts the data before transmitting it from your phone to its servers. All that is fine. But the letter doesn’t say anything about the data staying on your phone. Certainly, you should have access to that data if you want it. A growing number of people actually consider having an archive of all their movements to be a feature not a flaw (see Foursquare, Google Latitude, etc.). They should be able to choose to keep the location data on their phone (after all, it is their data), but it should not be stored there by default. Once it becomes opt-in, consumers can choose to track themselves as long as they accept the risks of doing so.

Have no doubt that Apple will keep tracking your movements as well. You do get some benefit from this in the form of wondrous geo-aware apps that open up the world around you. But you are also helping Apple build up its location database, which is an increasingly valuable asset. You are contributing to that database every time you walk out of your house with your iPhone.