Thanks to CSI and every action movie ever using it as a plot device, everyone knows that cell phones make you easier to track. Between cell tower triangulation and remote GPS pinging services, you’re trackable to the nth degree as soon as your shiny new smartphone slips into your pocket.
But here’s a twist: what if your phone not only kept a record of where you are, but also where you’ve been? According to research announced today, that’s exactly what the iPhone has been doing for months.
At today’s Where 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara, researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden announced that both the iPhone and 3G iPads are storing a persistent list of locations and timestamps, and have been doing so since iOS 4’s release. While that’s mysterious and somewhat spooky in and of itself, it gets a bit stranger: the “consolidated.db” file is synced (in plaintext) as part of your iPhone backup, which means that it’s chillin’ on any machine you’ve synced your iPhone with recently. This data can then be taken and mapped to show where you’ve been and where you’ve gone since the last time you cleared everything off your device.
Now, before you bust out the pitchforks: as far as anyone can tell, Apple doesn’t seem to be doing anything with this data. They don’t seem to be phoning it home or transferring it beyond your machine, so anyone without access to your backups can’t peruse through your every move. Also, the precision of your stored location seems to be incredibly varied. Unless you’ve got backups on a bunch of machines (and, more importantly, unless you’re someone whose location over the past year anyone would actually care about), there’s no immediate danger presented here.
Still, there’s plenty of reason to be irked by this; now that the information is out there, tools to sift through the data are undoubtedly on the way. Hell, the aforementioned researchers have already built one that lets you mash it up against a map. Got an angry ex trying to prove that you were seeing someone else while the divorce was still in progress? Hope she doesn’t have a backup of your iPhone. Taking it one step further into the creep-zone, this seems like something that could potentially be used as evidence in a criminal case. Just don’t ever be in the wrong place at the wrong time ever again, right?
So, are there any legit reasons for Apple to be storing this data? Sure. Maybe they’re using it to map signal strength/call quality. Maybe it’s required for some technical reason that I can’t come up with. Maybe it’s just accidental debug output from when they were testing the GPS. Whatever it is, though, it’s creepy, and Apple should definitely explain it with haste.