The iPhone and iPad’s ability to logs users’ whereabouts is probably a mistake that Apple Inc. (AAPL) will eliminate, said the researchers who discovered the feature.
"If this was a conspiracy, this file would have been hidden better and we wouldn’t have found it,’’ said Alasdair Allan, one of the computer programmers who discovered the tracking feature. “Our best guess is this was an engineering mistake.”
Allan and former Apple software engineer Pete Warden said they stumbled upon the file where all the location data was being stored by accident while toying with the iPhone to see what other data could be pulled from the device. They were surprised to find a file with about 29,000 logs of their whereabouts -- about a year’s worth.
They determined that Apple’s iOS 4 operating system for the iPhone and iPad 3G is logging latitude-longitude coordinates along with the time stamp of when a spot was visited. The data is transferred to the hard drive of a computer when the 3G iPhone or iPad is synched.
"As data geeks, my first reaction was, ‘this is really cool; I love seeing this story of my life play out on a map,’" said Allan. "My second reaction was, ‘I don’t want anybody else to see.’"
If the feature isn’t eliminated by Apple, customers at least need to be able to opt out of having their movements logged, said Warden, who used to work on Mac software at Apple.
"The key difference is permission and control," he said. "With this file you have no control over that. The user can’t give informed consent."
The discovery has led to criticism of Apple from privacy groups, regulators in France and Germany, as well as U.S. lawmakers. Allan and Warden said they reached out to Apple about the tracking before publishing their results yesterday and didn’t hear back.
"The existence of this information -- stored in an unencrypted format -- raises serious privacy concerns," U.S. Senator Al Franken, a Democrat from Minnesota, said in a letter to Apple Chief Executive Officer Steve Jobs seeking answers to questions about how the tracking data is being used.
Apple didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment. The company has previously told lawmakers that it collects location information about users of its smartphones, the Wall Street Journal reported today.
Allan and Warden said they hope publicizing the issue will ensure that Apple addresses the tracking feature. They also suggest users choose to encrypt data that’s being transferred from their iPad or iPhone.
“What we’ve been telling everyone is don’t panic,” said Warden. At the same time, "we need to make sure this is fixed."