Apple officially responds to iOS consolidated.db "tracking file" controversy

Apple earlier this week finally addressed the ongoing "controversy" regarding the alleged tracking file found in iOS 4

Late last week, the Internet was abuzz with news that Apple was tracking the location of its users via a nifty little consolidated.db file that contained a plethora of longitude and latitude coordinates. The fact of the matter is that the existence of the file had been known for some time and was often used by law enforcement agencies during forensic investigations.

Nevertheless, privacy concerns were eventually raised, and unfortunately, the topic became a hot button issue for pundits and politicians looking to create a stir without really knowing much of anything about what was going on.

Earlier this week, however, Apple clarified that it is, in fact, not tracking anybody. The reality is that the coordinates found in the aforementioned consolidated.db file contain data points for Cell Phone Tower and Wi-FI hotspot locations to quickly approximate a user's location.

In a press release on the matter, Apple addressed a number of common questions regarding the issue that seemingly spread out of control over the past few days.

Apple would like to respond to the questions we have recently received about the gathering and use of location information by our devices.

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.

Apple also notes that all of the location information logged by a user's iOS device is sent back anonymously and cannot be traced back to any specific user.

All that said, there were a few missteps in Apple's implementation.

For starters, the consolidated.db file stored location data for up to a year. Users naturally wondered how old data was useful in Apple's efforts to determine location today. To that point, Apple acknowledged that it was a bug and that a new iOS update would fix that. Moreover, Apple also said the new file would be encrypted.

Similarly, some users noticed that when they turned off Location Services, the iPhone would continue to update the file in question. This, Apple also admitted, is a bug they intend to fix with an upcoming iOS update.

All in all, Apple's response to the location tracking controversy was timely, informative, and should serve as an example of why folks shouldn't be so quick to jump to conclusions about big ole' evil Apple trying to monitor all of our movements. The truth, as is often the case, is much more benign.

You can check out Apple's full press release on the matter here.

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Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.