Apple Receives iPhone Location Data
By JULIA ANGWIN And JENNIFER VALENTINO-DEVRIES
While Apple Inc. has yet to comment on a new study that found its iPhones store data on users' locations, the company has previously revealed to lawmakers that it does collect such information.
Apple automatically transmits to itself location information about users of its smartphones, according to a letter the company sent to U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) last year.
The letter, which is publicly available on Rep. Markey's website, became newsworthy this week in light of findings from two researchers who uncovered a file on iPhones that keeps a record of where the phone has been and when it was there. The file is unencrypted and stored by default.
The discovery of this location file touched off a furor among iPhone owners who could see for the first time a trove of location data about themselves stored on their phones. The researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, said they had no evidence that the file was being transmitted to Apple.
But the letter indicates that the company is indeed collecting similar data from iPhones that have location services turned on (as they are by default, according to Apple's website) and use apps that require location. Apple says it will then "intermittently" collect location data, including GPS coordinates. It doesn't specify how often a person must use the app for intermittent collection to occur.
Apple gathers the data to help build a "database with known location information," the letter says. "This information is batched and then encrypted and transmitted to Apple over a Wi-Fi Internet connection every twelve hours (or later if the device does not have Wi-Fi Internet access at that time)," the company wrote in the July letter to Congress.
Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The outcry follows earlier revelations by The Wall Street Journal that many of the most popular smartphone apps go even further in transmitting personal information about phone users-by sending location and other data to third parties, sometimes without user consent.
A Journal examination of 101 smartphone apps showed that 47 sent location information to other companies without users' awareness or consent, and 56 sent the phones' unique device ID. Companies receiving such data included Apple and Google Inc., as well as advertising networks.
Researchers have found that Apple devices like the iPad and iPhone are logging user data like locations and time stamps. WSJ's Jen Valentino-DeVries reports on digits.
In Apple's letter to Mr. Markey, the company said it began offering location services in 2008. The company wrote that its early cellphones used location databases maintained by Google Inc. and Skyhook Inc., but that in April 2010 Apple began relying on its own location databases. "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," the company wrote.
On Wednesday, Rep. Markey sent a follow-up letter to Apple asking why the company is storing customer location data on its phones and whether it is using the data for commercial purposes, which could violate the Communications Act. "Apple needs to safeguard the personal location information of its users to ensure that an iPhone doesn't become an iTrack,"
Rep. Markey said in a statement.
Write to Julia Angwin at email@example.com