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Posted on Wednesday, April 20th, 2011

Dave!This morning after my daily toast and jam, I checked my email and saw a new one pop up with the subject line "How does it feel?" which came from an email address I didn't recognize. Naturally, I thought this was some kind of creepy spam that was advertising male "enhancement drugs" or some other crap, but I was also curious because usually one of my two spam filters manages to intercept stuff like this. So I opened it.

Much to my surprise, it wasn't spam. It was a reader(?) who was overjoyed to be telling me that "Your hero Steve Jobs is spying on you" and was asking "How does it feel to have your privacy raped by Apple?" Then there was a link to a website for an application called iPhone Tracker.

Apparently, your iPhone is constantly keeping track of everywhere you go and "secretly" saving this data. Then, when you sync your iPhone with your computer, iPhone transfers this information to your backup file. It also transfers the data when you migrate to a new iPhone or restore your data for some reason. Two guys names Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden stumbled across it and decided to write a program that allows you to display the data on a map, like so...

iPhone Tracker Map
Everywhere in the USA I've been for the past ten months.

iPhone Tracker Map
The tracking is surprisingly deep. This is a drive I made out of Chicago last July.

iPhone Tracker Map
Three or four trips to Europe, all tracked!

iPhone Tracker Map
The dots are obviously not actual locations in Corsica I visited... probably just cell towers iPhone signaled.

iPhone Tracker Map
A drive down the Amalfi Coast in Italy.

Now, my first reaction when I opened the program on my Mac was THIS IS SO AWESOME!! I mean, heck, I actually bought an iPhone app called "Trip Journal" to track my travels... I could have saved some money if I had known the feature was built-in! My only disappointment was that the data only goes back to June 30th, 2010 and I wish it went back further.

But then the implications began to sink it.

The iPhone Tracker developers don't believe that this data is transmitted to Apple in any form, but that doesn't mean that Apple couldn't take a look at it in the future. This alone doesn't scare me much since AT&T already has a record of everywhere I go (they log call locations for billing purposes). What does concern me is that Apple doesn't disclose that this data is being collected. If somebody were to steal my laptop, they could potentially see everywhere I've been and I'd be none the wiser because nobody told me it was there when I bought my iPhone. Not that I really care... I always blog where I'm at and log my every move with Gowalla anyway, but still... this is not a good thing.

Mostly because this data could be used in devious ways now that everybody knows about it. Want to know if your wife is cheating on you? Pull up iPhone Tracker and you can see exactly where she's been at any point in time. Want to know what your kids are up to? Run iPhone Tracker and know everywhere they go. Want to stalk somebody? Break into their house and run iPhone Tracker on their computer so you can track their movement patterns. The list goes on and on.

Obviously I don't think there's any evil motive behind Apple logging this information. They're probably working on some cool new feature for iDevices which will use the data in an interesting way. But they really, really should have warned people that their location is being tracked and definitely give people the option to turn this "feature" off if they should so desire. At the very least they should be encrypting it so that it's not so ridiculously easy to view.

I'm not very paranoid by nature, but every time something like this pops up, I can't help but wonder what other aspects of my life are being analyzed and collected. Then I conclude there's probably no part of my life that isn't on a computer somewhere, and just accept the fact that very little of what we do or say is private.

Welcome to 1984.

If you want to spy on yourself, you can download the Mac app to view your iPhone tracking data here.

Tags: , , ,
Categories: Apple Stuff 2011, News - Politics 2011Click To It: Permalink


  1. kat says:

    um super duper creepy. i’m also don’t like the whole theory of updating where i am at every moment… buuut. i guess in theory it could have some uses? 1984, please and thank you.

  2. Ren says:

    I saw (and installed) this earlier. It neither surprises nor bothers me. I wonder if it continues to work if you disable Location Services.

    Note that enabling encrypted backups in iTunes will apparently protect this data on your computer.

  3. Donna says:

    Everything tracks you. We no longer have privacy since the advent of the computer age. Hell, my old keyboard used to make calls to microsoft every half hour or so…still can’t figure out why.

    It’s at the point where you live with it or get off the grid. We’ve hit the point where all our fun technology can actually put your life in danger. And I don’t know what’s worse…that everything we do is monitored or that we all just accept it.

  4. Mrs. Hall says:

    this is why I have an android. which has nonesuch tracking tomfoolery!

    nope!!! nothing like that over here in android land!!

    (sticks fingers in her ears)


  5. Alexander says:

    I can’t get it to work with mine. (Maybe this is good?) Keeps returning a “Couldn’t load consolidated.db file…” error, even though the folder in question is chock-full of stuff.

    Oh well.

  6. It doesn’t really bother me either, I installed the iPhone Tracker app this morning when I first read about it. Kinda cool visualization actually. I do agree that the only thing that gives me pause is Apple not disclosing that it was collecting the data. But other than that I don’t really care all that much.

  7. B.E. Earl says:

    No iPhone, so I can’t be tracked that way. Now if I could only get this brain-chip implant that the government installed outta my head!

  8. Sarah says:

    Hmm, now I can see ALL the bars Vahid goes to now.
    Bwahaha. I don’t know why the evil laugh, just felt right.

  9. claire says:

    My mom has often said that it’s like the people running the government/corporations read 1984 and a few other dystopian novels of that vintage and rather than viewing them as cautionary tales, they studied them like blueprints.

  10. ssp says:

    Interesting facts, Dave. I agree that this is has two sides: the convenience of having your location loggeed and accessible and the secrecy of doing that.

    One question I couldn’t answer so far is how the geo-locations are created? Does each GSM tower send its location? Or do they just have IDs which the iPhone has to map in some way? In the latter case: where do the coordinates come from and which third party will deliver them (and thus be able to log the requests)?

    • Dave2 says:

      According to the developer’s FAQ, they are thinking the location data must be taken from triangulated cell tower information instead of actual battery-draining GPS coordinates (thus explaining the odd jumps into impossible locations… like the ocean). To me, this sounds like an odd way to go about it since this is a background task. Wouldn’t such activity degrade app performance by constantly stealing CPU cycles? But, then again, perhaps it is a natural function of the cell radio finding the best signal possible, and the data would be calculated even if Apple WASN’T requesting it for logging. I have no idea… and hold little hope that Apple will disclose anything about how it works. I mean… it’s Apple. 🙂

      • ssp says:

        Essentially what I’m wondering about is how the phone figures out the location of the cell towers. I see two main possibilities there:

        1. Transferring the longitude/latitude is part of the GSM standard, thus the phone always knows where it is. This seems rather unlikely, as it wouldn’t actually help the phone network.

        Alternative 2 is that there is a database for converting cell tower IDs (I’m assuming they have a unique one) into langitude/longitude pairs. If the database for that were inside the phone it’d be harmless (I doubt that due to the huge number of cells, the speed at which they change and not having read about that interesting file).

        If the database were outside the phone, it’s quite critical as the cell tower ID will have to be transferred somewhere to convert it into coordinates, essentially giving someone (most likely Apple) a good record of where you are. If that’s the case I’m sure Apple will use an ‘anonymous’ (yet unique) ID for you, thus claiming to be harmless, but we all know how well such anonymity works.

        Another theory I’ve read about would be between the two previous ones: Mapping services do know where cell towers and Wifi networks are and my understanding is that the Maps application loads that information for the regions you are viewing inside it. If so, the data getting transferred wouldn’t be quite as precise.

        As Apple are not known for being upfront and honest when it comes for explaining how things work, I guess people will have to make some tests with their iPhones to see where that information comes from. I’m sure someone will figure out what’s going on there.

        • Dave2 says:

          Well, yeah, they haven’t been upfront for one reason or another… not just with this, but with a lot of things. But dishonest? I don’t think Apple has a habit of coming out and outright lying about stuff like this. Do they? Not being forthcoming with information is one thing, lying is something entirely different.

  11. Sybil Law says:

    This makes stalking you so much easier!

  12. Iron Fist says:

    These maps sort of look like your plan for global domination. “Next I shall land my robot armies here, here and here. My legion of zombie monkeys shall invade Chicago from the south, pushing north before moving to secure the waterfront. Victory shall be mine!”

  13. I’m just upset there’s not a Windows version of the app yet. 🙁

  14. Abigail says:

    Ooo, nifty. Any chance this could work on a synced PC? For no good reason I sync my phone with a PC (and not with the two Macs I own) but I realllly want to see this! Think I could move the file to a Mac?

  15. Some ass will figure out a way to turn this into something evil. Sigh… it’s probably good to know it’s there. I imagine now that attorneys will use it for divorce cases and such.

  16. the muskrat says:

    We don’t have much privacy any more–that’s about all there is to it. A lot of us give it up willingly (via gowalla, blogging, etc. like you discussed), but certainly the way we’re being steered toward not caring about a right to privacy by corporations (and the government at times), we’re eroding our rights as Americans. I wonder what life will look like in 10-20 years in terms of privacy rights and all that go along with those rights from the Bill of Rights.

  17. the muskrat says:

    This must be an AT&T thing, right? I downloaded the app and only saw where my ipad has been, not my iphone, which I just switched to Verizon.

  18. martymankins says:

    Your point about the lack of disclosure is the part that concerns me the most, too. And if Apple is doing this with the iPhone, what about other phones like Android or webOS that have GPS tracking capabilities. The coolness factor of all this has that 1984 feel to it, as you stated at the bottom of your post.

  19. You know, I’m not at all surprised by this. And? My iPhone has had a boring life. Home, home, home, kids’ school, home, home, swim lessons, home, home, etc., etc.

  20. Donna says:

    ssp, Phones are basically GPS’s. They know where you are. It’s how emergency services can find people if they call with their cells. It’s also how kidnapped people have been found and how the feds have found criminals. If you don’t want to be tracked, you’d have to physically remove the battery. Even if the phone is off it has tracking capabilities…I don’t know how, but I read about it somewhere.

  21. Invader_Stu says:

    See… Apple is Skynet… and/or GlaDOS (Ok, I’ll stop it with that joke now).

  22. It says it can’t find consolidated.db on my MacBook.

    Maybe because I tell iTunes to encrypt my backups???

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