Apple has formally responded to the outcry over a database of visited WiFi hotspots and cell towers stored on ever user’s iPhone. If you need a backstory on this controversy, read Alex Levinson’s survey. He appears to be the first to publish this finding, and he explains it well. Apple’s release is pretty comprehensive, and confirms suspicions that there is more than one bug at play here. More notably, it includes an unprecedented forward discussion of a new service that Apple is actively working on.
The first bug is the amount of data that was cached. The consolidated.db file that stored this information seemed to be keeping data that was months old, or even older. Apple plainly stated “We don’t think the iPhone needs to store more than seven days of this data.” Another acknowledged bug was the continued reporting after a user had disabled Location Services.
Apple’s high-level explanation for the process:
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.
This can (and should) all be done without sending any information about you or your phone or yourself. Per the release, “This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form.”
The explanation also sheds some light on why what happens in Vegas stays on your iPhone, even if you haven’t been to Las Vegas in years: the iOS install and restore process presumably installs a default or baseline database with old information in it. I suspect this might also get cleaned up with the pending software update.
So those are the bugs. The answer to question 8, however, is eye-opening:
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.
When’s the last time Apple discussed a new product or service years in advance? Unprecedented as it may be, it’s the right move: get everything out in the open, lest someone discovers it later. This reassures customers, and hopefully the United States Senate. Far beyond the release itself, the disclosure of ongoing R&D shows how serious Apple is about addressing this controversy and ultimately making it go away.