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Apple finds itself in a familiar place -- in court, being sued by its customers. Before it faced suits for trying to destroy its customers' devices. Now it is being sued for allegedly endangering its customers safety by storing its customers' locations in explicit detail in a local device file.  (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The iPad and iPhone both store the file, which tracks users' for the entire life of their devices. If the information fell into the wrong hands -- say a stalker or rapist -- it could offer a virtual roadmap of where to find a person, at what times.  (Source: Alasdair Allan/Pete Warden)
Some iPhone and iPad users are taking less kindly to Job & Co.'s tracking than others

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."

The 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 old models.

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 claim.

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 used/distributed.

Outside the U.S., French, German, Italian and South Korean regulators have all launched investigations into the data collection.

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.



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RE: Not Tracking
By Solandri on 4/26/2011 4:20:25 PM , Rating: 5
It's pretty obvious to anyone who knows how this tech works that it's uploaded to Apple. There are basically 3 ways to figure out the phone's location.

1. GPS
2. WiFi hotspots within range
3. Cell phone towers within range

1 is the most obvious and accurate, but also the most overt. A lot of privacy-conscious people turn their GPS off precisely to prevent this. 3 is the least accurate and thus least useful for marketing purposes.

2 can be fairly accurate (down to a block or so), and can be done rather sneakily (most people don't know these companies can figure out your location from the nearby hotspots). But to pull it off requires a master database map with the constantly-updated location of all the WiFi hotspots in the country.

Google put together this database by driving around the country and recording WiFi information. This was the same program that got them in trouble for recording people's WiFi transmissions without their knowledge nor consent.

Apple used to use the Skyhook database for this. But in 2010 they started using their own database without doing a massive drive-around program like Google did. It doesn't take much to connect the dots here - they surreptitiously had iPhone users do the "driving around the country" for them and put together a hotspot database map by pulling the location and WiFi data off of people's iPhones.
http://www.f-secure.com/weblog/archives/00002145.h...


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