Moments ago, Apple uploaded a press release to its website answering some common questions on location data storage.

Previously, many Apple fans were unnerved by the knowledge that iOS devices appeared to “track” owners. Data collected by the device could be extracted and displayed on a map, very much like this one.

In a press release that hit the Web moments ago, Apple states that the company “is not tracking the location of your iPhone.” Instead, your iOS device stores information on Wi-Fi hotspots and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, “and even triangulate [owners'] location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available.”

Apple notes that a free iOS software update will be released in the coming weeks, which:

  • reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
  • ceases backing up this cache, and
  • deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

Here’s an outline of the press release, with each section explained:

The press release

Alright, let’s work through Apple’s press release piece by piece. First off, Apple reiterates what Steve Jobs recently told one fan (via email) – that the company does not track iPhones:

1. Why is Apple tracking the location of my iPhone?
Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.

Apple goes on to explain that the reason “locationgate” happened was because the company did not provide “enough education about [this] issue.” This is in the second section of the press release:

2. Then why is everyone so concerned about this?
Providing mobile users with fast and accurate location information while preserving their security and privacy has raised some very complex technical issues which are hard to communicate in a soundbite. Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.

Once we get to section three, Apple starts to provide users with a more detailed explanation. Essentially, Apple outlines that it logs customers’ location data in order to facilitate the process of finding GPS satellites. Furthermore, when these satellites aren’t available, the data aids triangulation via Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers. Importantly, this data is sent “in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.” Here’s section three:

3. Why is my iPhone logging my location?
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to 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). 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.

In section four, Apple explains that, because the data is “too big” to be stored on an iPhone, an “appropriate subset” (cache) is stored on each iPhone. This cache is protected, but is not encrypted, and is backed up to iTunes whenever users back up their handset. Again, this backup is not encrypted unless users choose to do so via iTunes – essentially, the data is not encrypted by default. Apple reiterates here that the location of the iPhone is not stored – instead, the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers is what is recorded. In this section, Apple also mentions the upcoming software update (see below). Here’s section four:

4. Is this crowd-sourced database stored on the iPhone?
The entire crowd-sourced database is too big to store on an iPhone, so we download an appropriate subset (cache) onto each iPhone. This cache is protected but not encrypted, and is backed up in iTunes whenever you back up your iPhone. The backup is encrypted or not, depending on the user settings in iTunes. The location data that researchers are seeing on the iPhone is not the past or present location of the iPhone, but rather the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location, which can be more than one hundred miles away from the iPhone. We plan to cease backing up this cache in a software update coming soon (see Software Update section below).

Section five is short and sweet, and pretty self explanatory:

5. Can Apple locate me based on my geo-tagged Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
No. This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.

To reiterate: The data sent to Apple is encrypted, but the data stored on the handset is not. In section six, Apple reminds users that the data stored is a cache – and, importantly, also states that the large amount of data stored (up to a year’s worth) is due to a software bug.  Apple notes that it thinks storing around seven days’ worth of data is enough:

6. People have identified up to a year’s worth of location data being stored on the iPhone. Why does my iPhone need so much data in order to assist it in finding my location today?
This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location. The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below). We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.

In section seven, Apple outlines the bug further: When users turn off Location Services, the iPhone continues to log the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers. This is part of the bug, and will be addressed in the upcoming software update:

7. When I turn off Location Services, why does my iPhone sometimes continue updating its Wi-Fi and cell tower data from Apple’s crowd-sourced database?
It shouldn’t. This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly (see Software Update section below).

Apple notes in section eight that the company is also collecting “anonymous traffic data,” with the goal of proving an “improved traffic service.” This could have been hinted at in a recent Apple patent, which we told you about yesterday.

8. What other location data is Apple collecting from the iPhone besides crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data?
Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years.

In section nine, Apple notes that the data is shared with third parties – if the user agrees:

9. Does Apple currently provide any data collected from iPhones to third parties?
We provide anonymous crash logs from users that have opted in to third-party developers to help them debug their apps. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them).

And in section 10, Apple reminds users that it really does take personal information security and privacy seriously:

10. Does Apple believe that personal information security and privacy are important?
Yes, we strongly do. For example, iPhone was the first to ask users to give their permission for each and every app that wanted to use location. Apple will continue to be one of the leaders in strengthening personal information security and privacy.

The software update is outlined at the bottom of the press release. Essentially, Apple is going to reduce the size of the aforementioned cache, stop backing it up, and delete the cache when Location Services is turned off. Furthermore, the cache will be encrypted once users have installed the software update:

Software Update
Sometime in the next few weeks Apple will release a free iOS software update that:

 

  • reduces the size of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database cached on the iPhone,
  • ceases backing up this cache, and
  • deletes this cache entirely when Location Services is turned off.

 

In the next major iOS software release the cache will also be encrypted on the iPhone.

Any questions? Feel free to post them in the comments.