Two researchers from O’Reilly radar set off a shit storm around the web yesterday by announcing that they had discovered a “hidden file” that was allowing Apple to gather data on iPhone users location over the course of the past year.
Even normally level headed writers like Alexis Madrigal demanded that Apple explain itself or just stop this “data collection” outright.
From the beginning this story felt wrong to me. Dozens of apps and features like MobileMe, which Apple demonstrates as part of their sales pitch, clearly record and track your location. Why would anyone be shocked that a file of this data existed on the phone.
Sure enough, Alex Levinson, a forensic researcher here in New York, wrote a lengthy blog post explaining that, not only did the pair of sleuths from O’Reilly fail to “discover” this particular trait, it had been written about months earlier, but they presented no evidence that Apple was actually collecting this information for themselves in any way. “Apple is not harvesting this data from your device. This is data on the device that you as the customer purchased and unless they can show concrete evidence supporting this claim – network traffic analysis of connections to Apple servers – I rebut this claim in full.”
The duo from O’Reilly eventually issued an update to their post. “Don’t panic. As we discuss in the video, there’s no immediate harm that would seem to come from the availability of this data. Nor is there evidence to suggest this data is leaving your custody. But why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it — or not — are important questions that need to be explored.”
Gosh, why would this secret file exist? What nefarious purpose could it have?!? An important discussing we need to have? Hardly. Levinson explains, “It’s used all the time by software running on the phone. Built-In applications such as Maps and Camera use this geolocational data to operate. Apple provides an API for access to location awareness called Core Location.”
There is nothing new or secret or nefarious about this. It’s a file that logs location information so that our phones can do all the wonderful things they do with location based apps and geo-tagging. As my now departed colleague Mike Taylor would say, grow up you babies.