Apple iPhone location tracking and how to protect yourself

The current outcry over the location tracking file in your iPhone (and presumably iPad) isn’t exactly much ado about nothing, but is mostly the news media trying to make hay out of it and counting on Apple’s name to attract viewers.

This location tracking file is present both on the iPhone itself and in your backups that you make when you sync your iPhone. By itself, the file doesn’t do anything. Your iPhone apparently doesn’t send it to Apple or anyone, and you can’t be tracked in real time (using that file – there may be plenty of other ways to do that). The biggest concerns are (1) why is Apple doing it? What benefit is it to them or the user? and (2) it can be exploited by a third party that can access your backup on your PC or Mac.

  1. As to why Apple is doing it, who knows? It may be a debugging tool that was left in place because nobody thought it would hurt anything. Perhaps Apple was planning to use it in the future. Maybe even they have nefarious plans to perhaps anonymously aggregate it and sell the data to location-based ad providers. I doubt we’ll ever get a really straight answer to this one, but for the moment, the file is harmless as long as it stays on the device. It isn’t harmless to Apple’s image, however, so I assume it will go away or be changed soon.
  2. If someone has access to your backups, you’ve got bigger problems than them knowing where you’ve been. They can get your financial information, your passwords (assuming you have your browser save them), and more. I know people are suggesting you encrypt your iPhone backup using iTunes’ encryption feature, but that surely isn’t enough to keep yourself safe. Use FileVault if you’re on a Mac or BitLocker or TrueCrypt for Windows. I’ve used all of these and they all work well and don’t seem to slow things down. So far, I haven’t lost a byte due to these encryption mechanisms. By using these approaches, along with good passwords, you can keep your data safe. If you don’t use something like that, there isn’t any sense in worrying about your iPhone location file. The door is open, so worrying about whether you closed a window isn’t relevant.

While this little Apple controversy makes for fun and exciting news, it is a trivial threat to our privacy, particularly given all the scary things that ad networks and others do to track us and our browsing/buying habits. Anyone who threatens to dump their iPhone over this issue is a little overly reactionary (there are other reasons to be mad with Apple about iPhones, but this isn’t one I’d worry about). I’m sure Apple will issue an update in the next month that either removes or significantly reduces the history kept in that location tracking file.

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