RealTime IT News

Apple Denies Tracking Users - Plans 'Bug Fix'

After a week of brouhaha regarding mobile devices -- particularly those running Apple iOS -- collecting massive amounts of data about users' locations from their phones, Apple announced it is working on a fix that will greatly shrink the information it collects and stores.

Further, Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) says it is working on a fix for a "bug" that allows the company's phones and servers to save as much as a year's worth of such location data. The fix will let the phone save only a week's worth of location data. It will also fix a problem that lets a device continue to collect some data even after location services have been disabled by the user.

Additionally, on Wednesday Apple released a Q&A, denying it is collecting any personally identifiable information on users' habits and that such information is encrypted to boot.

That comes with one caveat -- some data cached on the iPhone is not encrypted but that too will be encrypted in the next major release of iOS, Apple says.

In fact, according to the Apple Q&A, the phones don't actually collect the users' location data. Instead, they collect information about the users' surroundings, such as Wi-Fi hot spots and cell towers, some as far as a hundred miles or more away.

The reason for this is to enable the phone to help the user find useful locations faster than simply relying on synching up to the GPS satellite system, which can sometimes take several minutes.

"iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements)," the Q&A said.

What Apple does -- or intends to do -- with the data is to provide a data infrastructure for the user and other users to speed up delivery of wireless services such as movie times at nearby theaters, restaurants with open tables on a busy night, or locations where young singles might gather.

Of course, that includes advertisers, which raises issues of privacy and intrusiveness of services. After all, why would a phone user want to suffer through the kinds of "take over" ads that victimize them when they try to read the news on his or her PC browser? Or what if someone wanted to see where, physically, the user has been at a particular time?

However, it's not sinister, Apple insists.

"These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple," the Q&A said. "Apple cannot identify the source of this data."

That still leaves a lot of questions in the minds of consumers, consumer advocates, and government -- and it highlights growing concerns about users' privacy -- issues that other nations, particularly in Europe, have been grappling with for several years.

Additionally, Apple isn't the only mobile operating system vendor that envisions the cornucopia of wireless services delivered to users at lightning speed, along with advertising, to be reaped in the years to come. That's, of course, part of the problem -- and just one of the many hard questions that need to be answered in the increasingly wireless world.

For instance, both Google's Android and Microsoft's Windows Phone 7 also collect some data on users' locations -- and it's certain to threaten potential future sources of revenue for vendors and advertisers alike -- creating a fine line.

"Microsoft provides location services for Windows Phone in a way that ensures that users expressly consent to enable location services for every application that utilizes them [and] Windows Phone does not track location data on a consistent basis; it only identifies location when an application specifically requests location information," a Microsoft spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an emailed statement.

Google had a similar response.

Google, in fact, had its own contretemps with European authorities this time last year, over Wi-Fi data collected, the company said, inadvertently.

"All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user. We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user," a Google spokesperson told InternetNews.com in an email.

Meanwhile, Apple officials are reported to be planning to testify at a U.S. Congressional hearing regarding the issue on May 10.

Stuart J. Johnston is a contributing editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals. Follow him on Twitter @stuartj1000.