The government is demanding
answers and the public is getting all nervous. Not too shabby for a
humble discovery by a hard working pair of security researchers.
The discovery by Pete Warden
and Alasdair Allan that Apple Inc.'s (AAPL)
popular iPhone and iPad devices track
their users' locations in explicit detail without
permission has already created a firestorm of debate. Now it has
generated a lawsuit as well.
I. Apple Finds Itself in Court Again
Vikram Ajjampur, an iPhone user in Florida, and
William Devito, a New York iPad customer, have filed suit against Apple in
Tampa Bay, Florida federal court. The suit was filed on April 22; only two days
after Mr. Warden and Mr. Allan presented their findings.
The news organization Reuters interviewed the
pair's lawyer, Aaron Mayer. He kept the discussion high level, stating,
"We take issue specifically with the notion that Apple is now basically
tracking people everywhere they go. If you are a federal marshal, you have to
have a warrant to do this kind of thing, and Apple is doing it without one."
complaint [PDF] offers juicier details. It alleges that
Apple violated federal computer fraud laws and consumer fraud and deceptive
trade practice laws in many states by implementing the undisclosed feature,
which records users' positions thousands of times daily and stores it to a
permanent internal database.
The pair's complaint seeks a judge's order to force Apple to
remove the "feature" and cease tracking people without their
permission. It also demands that Apple issue refunds to any customers who
want one, arguing that many customers would not have bought the devices had
Apple not deceived them about the tracking. It also seeks unspecified
punitive damages for negligent misrepresentation.
II. Is Google Just as Bad?
While the feature may make some users wary of
buying Apple products, some argue Apple's chief competitor Google Inc. (GOOG)
is just as bad or worse. Apple reportedly never collects the data it
stores wirelessly -- though the possibility remains that it was planning to
harvest the data sets when customers upgraded their iPhones, returning their
By contrast, Google, makers of the wildly popular
Android OS, regularly collects location data, though it only stores a small
amount of it locally. It regularly wipes this store and reportedly takes
steps to preserve users' anonymity.
Thus Google may be a bit nosier as a company, but
its devices offer less risk to its users. By contrast Apple's behavior
puts users' at a greater risk of privacy invasion by a third party.
Criminals or private investigators could use a questionably obtained
device to map a person's frequent whereabouts, possibly putting them in
physical or financial danger.
Legally where Apple may have put itself in real
trouble was in the claims that it made last year that it
did not track users' positions if they disabled location-aware services in it's
devices' settings. This statement now appears to be a blatant lie and
puts Apple in a sticky predicament.
Apple has refused comment, publicly.
But reportedly Apple CEO Steve Jobs has claimed in
a short email to a customer that Apple "does not track" users, though
he failed to provide any specifics about the scope or precise meaning of his
III. Governments Voice Concern
Even if Apple can defeat the litigation against it
on a federal level, it may face pressure at the state level to kill the
feature. Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan has ordered [press
release] both Google and Apple to give a full accounting of how their
devices collect and store users' locations, including how that data is
Outside the U.S., French, German, Italian and
South Korean regulators have all launched investigations into the data
It appears that Mr. Warden -- himself a former
Apple software engineer -- has created a massive headache for his former
employer. And Mr. Allan, a senior research fellow in Astronomy at University
of Exeter in England, was happy to help him out.
The pair has created quite a name for themselves
at Apple's expense.
Apple, though, should be familiar with customers’
lawsuits and the courts by now. Since the introduction of the iPhone in 2007
it has faced a steady
barrage of lawsuits for trying to limit the ways its customers can use their
devices and even trying
to destroy the devices of "non-compliant" customers at one point.