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No, iPhone location tracking isn't harmless and here's why

Secret Apple database already being tapped by cops

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Internet Security Threat Report 2014

Cops already tapping consolidated.db predecessor

Chris Soghoian, a security and privacy researcher with no connection to Warden and Allan's work, agreed.

“I don't think users had any idea that this information was being collected,” he said. “The fact that it doesn't detail the exact street corner you were on and merely deals with what neighborhood you were in, I don’t think that's going to be comforting to people.

He compared the the iPhone and iPad's tracking of location information to the Google Street View debacle, in which roving vehicles throughout the globe logged unencrypted Wi-Fi traffic and dumped it into a giant database, contradicting previous assurances from the company. Google later pledged to destroy the data, which may include passwords and other sensitive information.

Soghoian said Apple had a responsibility to let customers know the type and extent of the information their iPhones and iPads were collecting about them.

“When you get stopped by the police and they arrest you for any crime, they can search your phone and get any data off of it,” he said. “This is definitely something that people should be concerned about and I think what it points to is that Apple isn't taking privacy seriously.”

Indeed, Alex Levinson, a forensics expert specializing in mobile devices, blogged here that “geolocational artifacts were one of the single most important forensic vectors found on” the devices. As a result, he wrote a proprietary program called Lantern that law enforcement agencies use to actively examine the contents of the iPhone location database.

“Within 24 hours of the iPhone 4's release, we had updated Lantern to support forensic analysis of iOS 4.0 devices,” he wrote. “Within 36 hours, we had begun writing code to investigate consolidated.db. Once a jailbreak came out for iOS 4, I wrote a small proof of concept application to harvest the contents of consolidated.db and feed it to a server for remote location tracking.”

Levinson also said iPhone location tracking has gone on much longer than indicated by Warden and Allan, who claimed it began with the introduction of Apple's iOS 4 in late June. In fact, said Levinson, earlier iPhones contained a hidden file called h-cells.plist that contained much of the same baseband radio locations that consolidated.db has now.

“Through my work with various law enforcement agencies, we've used h-cells.plist on devices older than iOS 4 to harvest geolocational evidence from iOS devices,” wrote Levinson, who is a lead engineer for Katana Forensics.

Based on Levinson's account, it's hard to put much credence in critics who cite bugs and a lack of geographic granularity to argue that the undisclosed tracking of iPhones and iPads is harmless or inconsequential to its millions of users. Inclusion of the database means that anyone who ever loses his device risks exposing potentially large amounts of information about where he was over months or years.

That could be devastating for people embroiled in messy lawsuits or those whose whereabouts are closely guarded secrets, such as volunteers who work with victims of abusive spouses.

Of course, none of this speculation would be necessary if Apple would come clean about exactly how the location tracking it built into its devices works and what precise information is collected. The company, in keeping with its Jobsian obsession with privacy, has yet to utter a peep despite widespread media coverage.

Here's hoping Apple's location tracking isn't as big a threat as some believe. But until those who know for sure speak up (Apple PR, are you listening?), we think the prudent thing to do is assume it is. ®

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