Huffpost Technology
Amy Lee Headshot

Does Apple's iPhone Tracking Denial Belie Reality?

Posted: Updated:
IPHONE TRACKING
AP

Apple has denied accusations that it tracks users' locations via their iPhones, though experts say what the company admits doing may not be so far off.

The tech giant was accused of accessing the locations of its users several times a day and keeping an unencrypted log of these locations for up to a year. In its response, Apple said that the information it receives is actually the locations of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone that could be over 100 miles away.

"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone," a company press release read. "Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location ... to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested."

Though Apple doesn't track the precise location of iPhones, the information it is collects about the relative distance of cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots may be an accurate proxy for users' locations, experts note.

The log of past locations creates an eerily accurate recreation of any person's everyday path. With such locations, one could identify a person's home, workplace, favorite haunts and more.

"Look, it is tracking. It's a question of whether I can track you to a five mile radius near a cell tower or pinpoint track you to five meters," said Ted Marzilli, global managing director of YouGov BrandIndex, which measures brand buzz.. "Apple is clouding the issue by saying they're not tracking but then describing something that sounds very much like tracking."

The issue at hand is also what Apple could do potentially do with the data it has collected.

"I think they're being totally disingenuous. I'm willing to believe they did not use it to locate people, but God knows they could use it," said Jonathan Yarmis, an independent analyst. "The concern is, do they know where you are? What they're saying is, 'No, we've never used this to identify where someone is.' But should someone be so inclined they could use that information to locate me to a high degree of precision."

Apple's latest response might not be enough to quell the tide of bad PR the company has faced in the wake of "Locationgate," as the controversy has been dubbed.

"In a PR crisis, you need to be honest and straightforward with people," said Marzilli. "People can tell when a company is not being completely truthful. It's somewhat typical Apple fashion not to be transparent and clear."

Since the iPhone location collection hit the news, Apple's YouGov buzz fell to 7.4. At its peak in mid-February, Apple scored a 40.2.

Apple has responded to previous scrutiny in a similar defensive manner. Last summer, when a number of users discovered that the iPhone lost reception when held by the antenna band ("Antennagate"), Apple told customers to simply avoid holding their devices that way. Only after pressure escalated did the company finally release a statement acknowledging their error and reminding users that if they really wanted to, they could return their phones.

Apple has since promised it will correct the issues that created the unencrypted cache of location data over an extended period of time. But even if Apple, as it claims, did not keep the caches at hand on its own servers, the information represents a store of data equivalent to a map of a user's life.

"What they're talking about is maintaining a breadcrumb trail of your device over time. That's what we all mean by tracking," said Ted Morgan, CEO of Skyhook, a Wi-Fi positioning technology used in Apple devices until April 2010. "It's a very good signature of your life and can be used to figure out who you are."

Apple did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Around the Web

Apple 'dropped the ball' on iPhone location tracking issue, says expert

Apple Responds to iPhone Tracking Claims

Apple Sued Over iPhone Tracking

The iPhone Tracking Controversy: Sen. Al Franken Sets a Hearing

Are You Satisfied With Apple's Response to the iPhone-Tracking Debacle? [POLL]

Apple blames iPhone tracking file on 'bug' - CNN.com

Apple: We'll fix iPhone tracking 'bug' | Signal Strength - CNET News

Apple Finally Responds to iPhone Location Tracking Issue

Your iPhone Is Tracking Your Every Move

iPhone Location-Tracking Controversy Mars Apple's Rep: Survey

'South Park' has fun with Apple, iPhone tracking

Apple Responds to iPhone Tracking Claims

Boot up: white iPhone's UVP, Steve Jobs on tracking, PlayBook review and more

Apple Sued Over iPhone Tracking

How Do Third-Party Apps Handle Location Data? Congress Wants to Know

The iPhone Tracking Controversy: Sen. Al Franken Sets a Hearing

From Our Partners