The Wall Street Journal now reports that Android-powered smartphones are apparently tracking location data and transmitting this information to Google.
Using an HTC smartphone, security analyst Samy Kamkar found that the handset was regularly gathering and sending location data to Google. "[The device] also transmitted the name, location and signal strength of any nearby Wi-Fi networks, as well as a unique phone identifier," writes the Journal.
"All location sharing on Android is opt-in by the user,” a Google rep told All Things D. “We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices. Any location data that is sent back to Google location servers is anonymized and is not tied or traceable to a specific user.”
Though iPhone units supposedly store timestamps tied to the latitude and longitude of cellular towers, researcher Alex Levinson says Apple may not be harvesting this data the way Google is.
However, researchers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan allege that an iPhone will store its location data in a backup file that transfers to the user's computer during syncing.
"This is an open, unlocked file in a known location in a standard database format that anybody can read," writes journalist Andy Ihnatko "If someone has physical access to your Mac — or remote access to your user account — it’s a simple matter of copying a file and opening it. And while the logfile can’t tell someone that you were at a specific house, it can obviously tell your boss that you went to the Cape on the day you called in sick."
Alex Levinson says that the iPhone's location tracking feature isn't new or secret. He writes, "Location services have been available to the Apple device for some time. Understand what this file is – a log generated by the various radios and sensors located within the device."
While Apple still hasn't explained why this information is being tracked and stored, Daring Fireball's Jon Gruber suggests that it may simply be an oversight that will probably be fixed in the next version of iOS.
But not everyone is convinced.
“These aren’t smartphones; they are spy phones,” said John M. Simpson, director of the nonpartisan, nonprofit public interest group’s Privacy Project. “Consumers must have the right to control whether their data is gathered and how it is used.”
Fortunately, there are a few steps you can take now, and you can simply turn off location services on both your iPhone or Android device. In Android, go to Menu > Settings > Location and Location setting. iPhone users: tap Settings > General and turn off location services. To protect the data saved on your computer, plug your iPhone into your computer, select the phone in iTunes, click "Options" and then "Encrypt iPhone backup."