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iPhone photo-slurping loophole sparks app privacy fears

Contact lists, pics, vids ... what else can devs grab?

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Exactly how much data can be extracted from iPhones by apps without explicit user consent has been called into question after it emerged that software granted access to location-finding services can siphon off punters' photos.

The extraction of address book information without permission from the user has already raised privacy concerns, heightened this week after Facebook was obliged to deny that its iPhone app was reading private text messages.

But contact information is not the only thing Jesus-mobe owners need to be wary about.

Once an Apple fanboi grants permission for an iPhone or iPad app to access location information, the app can copy their photo library without any further notice or warning, The New York Times reports.

When an app wants to use location data, Apple's devices prompt users for permission via a pop-up window that warns that proceeding "allows access to location information in photos and videos".

Developers reckon this warning is a mildly misleading because once granted, an iOS application might have access to the actual photos and video clips – not just the location where they were recorded. The functionality to support this was bundled in iOS version 4, which was released in 2010.

Whether any apps are actually using this to covertly extract user photos is unclear. Apple screens applications before allowing them to be be made available through its App Store. However this precaution may be insufficient, according to iOS developers.

"Conceivably, an app with access to location data could put together a history of where the user has been based on photo location," David E Chen, co-founder of iOS application developer Curio, told The NYT. "The location history, as well as your photos and videos, could be uploaded to a server. Once the data is off of the iOS device, Apple has virtually no ability to monitor or limit its use."

Other developers quizzed by The NYT said that the problem basically stemmed from a misleading pop-up dialogue, rather than anything inherently bad.

"Apple is asking for location permission, but really what it is doing is accessing your entire photo library," said John Casasanta, owner of iPhone app development studio Tap Tap Tap. "The message the user is being presented with is very, very unclear."

The NYT asked an independent developer to write an iOS application that collected photos and location information from an iPhone as a test. The proof-of-concept app, dubbed PhotoSpy, was capable of siphoning photos from smartphones and tablets but (once again) its permission dialog screen only asked for location information.

Crucially the app was not submitted to the App Store. So privacy of photos on iPhones hinges on the robustness of Apple's approval process, which is pretty tight, if not foolproof.

"Apple has a tremendous responsibility as the gatekeeper to the App Store and the apps people put on their phone to police the apps," said David Jacobs, a fellow at the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "Apple and app makers should be making sure people understand what they are consenting to.

"We’ve seen celebrities and famous people have pictures leaked and disclosed in the past. There’s every reason to think that if you make that easier to do, you’ll see much more of it," he warned.

Android users who give permission for an application to modify or delete SD card contents are equally opening up their photograph albums, along with everything else, often without the user realising it. So the issue of smartphone privacy is far from restricted to iPhone users.

Frankly the whole business is enough to tempt the more privacy-conscious back to the trusty Nokia 6310 – or carrier pigeons. ®

Mobile application security vulnerability report

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