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Apple now collecting, sharing precise location of iPhone users

By John Byrne
Tuesday, June 22, 2010 9:41 EDT
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The world’s largest technology company by market capitalization may soon rival the National Security Agency in its ability to track Americans using their cell phones.

Apple Inc. is now tracking the “precise,” “real-time geographic location” of iPhones, iPads and Macintosh computers — and has unwittingly gotten its customers to sign off on their being tracked by making a little-noticed modification to the language in its apps store.

The company’s “partners and licensees” will now be able to collect and store data about your location.

Apple’s new privacy policy comes in the wake of a new “Find my iPhone” app the company approved which allows users to recover their lost phones using AT&T’s location services.

Tracking digital consumers by location is nothing new. Websites routinely receive information about their users’ locations in order to serve relevant advertising. For example, Raw Story’s ad providers use information provided by readers’ Internet service providers to serve ads appropriate to the region in which they’re being read — for example, you might get an ad for a political campaign in your area. You can opt-out here.)

But Apple’s new terms and conditions allow it to store information about users’ exact locations, a level of privacy intrusion not heretofore seen. Websites can tell users’ locations down to a zip code, generally speaking, but they neither store nor track exact locations — which Apple and AT&T can do using triangulation down to about ten feet.

(AT&T, if you remember, was a participant in the National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program, which allows the US government to track the phone numbers called by its citizens abroad. A whistleblower said that AT&T in fact had its own spy room in San Francisco for the government.)

Adds The Los Angeles Times:

The company says the data is anonymous and does not personally identify users. Analysts have shown, however, that large, specific data sets can be used to identify people based on behavior patterns.

An increasing number of iPhone apps ask users for their location, which is then used by the application or even uploaded to the app’s maker. Apps like the Twitter application Tweetie and Google Maps make frequent use of location data, either to help the user get oriented geographically or to associate the user’s action with a specific location (as when a tweet is geotagged).

Apple says in its privacy policy that it uses personal information to “improve our services, content, and advertising.”

On Monday, Apple also rolled out its new advertising platform, iAd, for the latest version of its iPhone operating system (iOS 4). The company may well be integrating the location information into its advertising system — for instance, to help local shops sell coupons to users in the neighborhood.

The new passage in Apple’s terms and conditions is:

To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.

Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the MobileMe “Find My iPhone” feature, require your personal information for the feature to work.

Ironically, The Los Angeles Times‘ parent company released their own iPhone app just two hours after they did a writeup on Apple’s new privacy policy.

Mac OS Hints offers this tip to turn off “Location Services” in iPhone OS 4:

As iOS 4 is being released for upgrading today (you’ll need iTunes 9.2 to do so), a lot of new features will be introduced. Many are brand new, but some resemble features introduced with the iPad and iPhone OS 3.2, and are improved beyond that.

One of them is the Location Services Settings, especially with respect to privacy controls.

In iPad, a little NE pointing arrow appears in the top bar to alert you that the GPS is being accessed from an application, and that function is now in iOS 4 as well. [crarko adds: My mistake: it appears this wasn't in iPhone OS 3.2, and is new.]

What’s new is the ability to toggle on or off the ability of apps to use Location Services on a per app basis, much like Notifications. If you look in Settings » General » Location Services, all the apps that make use of the GPS are listed, along with the NE arrow icon if they have used Location Services in the past 24 hours. There is also a toggle switch for each app, to enable/disable the services.

Note you will no longer be presented with the dialog box asking for permission to use your current location in apps, but will instead be warned by an app that you’ve turned off that it can’t get current information. An app which is enabled will display the arrow icon.

 
 
 
 
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