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New iPhone Tracking Controversy Is Debated, Could Be Simple Bug

New iPhone Tracking Controversy Is Debated, Could Be Simple Bug

April 21, 2011
More information has been uncovered about Apple’s file, which apparently tracks our every move. For privacy advocates, it is probably very good news. It appears that the file was never supposed to track our every move forever, and because of this, the problem should eventually be solved. This news/rumor was first discussed by John Gruber at Daring Fireball. However, is this the end of the story? First, the good news, at least for privacy advocates: According to Gruber, the consolidated.db file was never supposed to maintain an ongoing account of our comings and goings. Rather, it was only supposed to contain recent movement data, which was supposed to be dumped from time to time. He states:
The big question of course, is why Apple is storing this information. I don’t have a definitive answer, but my little-birdie-informed understanding is that consolidated.db acts as a cache for location data, and that historical data should be getting culled but isn’t, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight. I.e. someone wrote the code to cache location data but never wrote code to cull non-recent entries from the cache, so that a database that’s meant to serve as a cache of your recent location data is instead a persistent log of your location history. I’d wager this gets fixed in the next iOS update.
However, Gruber says the underlying problem isn’t so much that Apple included the file since at least iOS 4, (or that is might soon be fixed), but that the general public didn’t know about it. This is especially alarming since it appears digital forensic experts knew about it since at least September 2010. As proof, Gruber highlighted a quote from Christopher Vance reported at the time. Vance, according to his "About The Author" page, is a Digital Forensic Specialist. In it, he states: The forest that’s being missed for the Apple trees here? Go back to the observation I made about where this has been discussed: digital forensic circles. I don’t want to claim that consolidated.db exists to aid forensics investigations, but it’s digital manna from heaven for law enforcement (and hackers). Yet any phone you use stores information locally — and if it’s a smartphone, that can be a lot of information, from your calendar to your browsing history. Call me a bleeding heart if you will, but the amount of “digital fingerprints” we leave has increased exponentially over the last two decades, and that trend shows no signs of slowing down. This comes after Dark Politricks revealed earlier this week that the Michigan State police (for one) is collecting iPhone data for its own investigations. They noted:
The worst thing about this story is that most people are unaware that they are participating in this massive collection of personal data and unwittingly helping to build the surveillance state by consent.
This entire episode, which for many may boil down to the old adage, “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear,” is controversial, just like the quote itself (see notes). It pits privacy advocates against law enforcement. Hopefully, Apple will either offer more information on the reasoning behind the “consolidated.db” file or the “bug” behind it will be fixed. What are your thoughts? Please your comments below. Note: the origins of the phrase “if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear” are unknown. Over the decades, it has been tied to anyone from George Orwell (author of the book 1984), to Nazi Joseph Goebbels, to Pope Innocent IV.

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