Apple, Google Face Goverment Scrutiny Over Privacy Issues

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 04-26-2011

Apple and Google could find themselves under additional government pressure to reveal how they collect and store location data, after Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan asked to meet with executives from both those companies to discuss privacy issues.

"I want to know whether consumers have been informed of what is being tracked and stored by Apple and Google and whether those tracking and storage features can be disabled," Madigan wrote in a statement reprinted April 25 by Bloomberg.

Apple already faces similar inquiries from the federal government, after U.S. Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., and Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., fired off letters to Apple CEO Steve Jobs April 21, asking for clarification on news that the iPhone and 3G-enabled iPad running iOS 4 have been saving location data to a hidden database file.

"The existence of this information stored in an unencrypted format raises serious privacy concerns," read Franken's letter. "The researchers who uncovered this file speculated that it generated location based on cell phone triangulation technology. If that is indeed the case, the location available in this file is likely accurate to 50 meters or less."

Researcher Alasdair Allan wrote about iOS 4's supposed location-sniffing abilities in an April 20 posting on the O'Reilly Radar blog. Working with co-researcher Pete Warden, he released an open-source iPhone Tracker application that can plot that stored location data on a map.

"The database of your locations is stored on your iPhone as well as in any of the automatic backups that are made when you sync it with iTunes," Allan wrote as part of a FAQ about removing the data. "One thing that will help is choosing encrypted backups, since that will prevent other users or programs on your machine from viewing the data, but there will still be a copy on your device."

The location data saved by iOS 4 apparently contains information gleaned from cell towers and names of WiFi access points, and not actual GPS data from the tablet or smartphone. In theory, anyone who seizes both the user's iOS device and its synching PC would have access to the unlocked database file and roughly a year's worth of consolidated location data. News reports suggest that law enforcement agencies have been using that data for at least the past year.

For more, read the eWEEK article: Apple, Google Under More Government Privacy Focus.