Q. I heard that my iPhone has been tracking my location. It supposedly has years of location data stored. Is that really true? What can I do to stop it?
-Wyatt from Ft. Wayne, IN, listens to my national radio show on WOWO 1190 AM
A. The iPhone has taken a lot of heat over security and privacy concerns lately. First we learn that app developers are secretly collecting our data. Now we’re learning that the iPhone is creating logs of where we go.
What’s more disturbing is that we’re really just hearing about this now. One researcher disclosed the problem last year. And police have known about the logs, too. They’ve been downloading them from suspects’ phones. They don’t need a warrant to do this.
It’s clear that there’s a dark side to the smartphones we’ve come to rely upon. It would have been nice if Apple had told us what was going on. I suppose it would have made us reconsider buying that shiny new iPhone, though.
Let’s take a look at the problem. iPhones have GPS chips inside them. This is a big selling point. We can instantly find nearby businesses and friends. We can get driving directions or find where we parked the car.
So, we’re OK with apps accessing location information to provide a service we want. We expect this data to stay private, however. We don’t want our phones creating logs of where we go.
It is well-known that the iPhone shares your location with Apple and app developers. This is mainly used to streamline how location-based apps work. It is also shared with advertisers in some cases. However, this isn’t really something to worry about.
The transmitted location data is anonymous. There’s no easy way for the manufacturer to link the data to you. Plus, the iPhone has an option for turning off location sharing. In the latest version of iOS, tap Settings>>General>>Location Services. Use the sliders to specify which apps can access your location information.
What wasn’t widely known is that your location information is also stored locally. That way, your phone always knows where it is. This is useful for apps that rely on knowing your location quickly. But the iPhone apparently stores every location you’ve ever been!
This location log is kept in a database on the iPhone. It is also backed up to your computer when you synchronize your iPhone. The log is unencrypted, so it’s easy to find and read.
The location log isn’t a function of location sharing. Nor does it rely on GPS to operate. Turning those features off doesn’t stop your location from being stored.
This sounds like a bonanza for snoops and hackers. However, there is some debate about this. Apple says only nearby cell tower and Wi-Fi hotspot information is stored. That’s not the same as your exact location.
Of course, it could still give snoops clues to your whereabouts. I’m not too thrilled about that either way. I don’t want creeps knowing even my general location.
Want to see what’s in your iPhone’s tracking log? A simple program will read the location data. It then displays all your past locations on a map. You can see what data has been stored. The program can be downloaded here.
The program only works on Macs right now. I expect someone will eventually release a Windows version. It’s too good an opportunity for snoops to pass up.
I’m sure you’re now convinced that this is a problem. You probably want to know what you can do about it. Unfortunately, a permanent solution isn’t available yet.
Apple claims that this entire problem is a bug in the software. It should be releasing a fix in a few weeks. This fix will hopefully alleviate most of the concerns.
First of all, the location storage will be limited to a matter of days. Secondly, turning off the location sharing setting will delete the location log. Thirdly, the log will no longer be backed up to your computer. The log currently on your computer will be erased.
Finally, there will be another fix in the next major iOS update. The location log will be encrypted on your gadget. That way, it can’t be easily read by snoops.
Until those patches are released, there are a few things you can do. I recommend encrypting your iTunes backup. This will keep a hacker from getting your location information from your computer.
To encrypt backups, open up iTunes with your iPhone plugged in. Go to the Devices section and select your gadget. You should see a device summary page.
Scroll down to the bottom of the page. There will be an option labeled Encrypt iPhone backup. Check this option and then choose a password.
Your backup can now only be opened with your password. That means snoops can’t get into it. Your location data will be safe until the fix is released.
Note that the iPad 3G has the same location-storing system. The iPod touch and iPad Wi-Fi have a scaled back version. The instructions above will work for those as well.
Unfortunately, the location data is still unencrypted on your gadget. Make sure you can remotely wipe your gadget if it’s lost or stolen. You don’t want the thief tracking you back home, after all.
SO….THERE YOU HAVE IT. If it weren’t for my friend, Rea, we would all be found. Thank you, Rea….from the world…