Last week's news that relatively imprecise cell phone tower location data from iPhones is stored in a file that is backed up onto your computer seems to be gathering a lot of attention. It was even the main topic of discussion on last night's TUAW Talkcast.
"Locationgate" began when two researchers released a Mac app (iPhone Tracker) that not only finds the file on your computer, but also displays that information. The iPhone Tracker plot of my location information (seen above) shows that I seem to spend a lot of time in the Denver area. That's not surprising, since that's where I live.
Bloomberg reported that the South Korean government has contacted Apple for information about location information collection. In South Korea, the collection of GPS coordinates violates privacy laws, so the government wants to know how the information is stored and whether users can choose to turn off the storage of location data. The Korea Communications Commission also wants to know why Apple captures the information and if it is stored on the company's servers.
South Korea isn't the only country in which privacy advocates are up in arms -- French, American, German and Italian regulators also want to know why Apple collects the information. Razorian Fly notes that Apple has already explained why it collects and store this data in a letter to the US Congress last year. Basically, it's done so Apple has its own location services and is not dependent on Google or Skyhook for that information. It's this location data that your iPhone queries when it initially tries to figure out where it is, before the device locks onto the GPS satellite constellation.
Over the weekend, a MacRumors reader allegedly sent an email to Apple CEO Steve Jobs asking why Apple was "tracking him" and threatened to move to an Android-based phone because "they don't track me." Jobs, in one of his typically terse responses, reportedly replied, "Oh yes they do. We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false." Update: Arnold Kim of MacRumors reports that the email appears to be legitimate and that he's "reasonably confident" that the response came from Jobs.
Essentially, Jobs is correct. Apple isn't actively tracking anyone. Anybody who has watched either CSI or Law & Order for the last 10 years or so can tell you, if law enforcement agencies want to know where you are, they can do so in real time via cell tower triangulation regardless of what kind of cell phone you're using. It doesn't need to be an iPhone -- any phone can be identified as it is passing amidst the grid of towers, and your location can be approximated. The only difference here is that the data is being stored and then synced to your computer after the fact.
The Wall Street Journal whacked the proverbial hornet's nest with a stick this morning when it noted that even when location services are turned off on an iPhone, location data is still stored on the devices. The Journal also reported that the cell tower triangulation method produces rather inaccurate location readings saying that during tests, "the coordinates were not from the exact locations that the phone traveled, and some of them were several miles away."
Locationgate is obviously a hot topic right now, and the best thing that Apple can do to toss this onto the heap of previous teapot tempests is to quickly and publicly disclose exactly how and why it creates the file, what purposes the data is used for, and how other phone manufacturers use location data.
Update: For one of the most logical explanations of the story from an expert in geospatial technology, look no further than Peter Batty's geothought blog.