Tech: iPhone tracking device knows where you are

By Jacob Rasch

When security researchers recently found out that a small file in the iPhone was tracking users’ locations, it caused quite a controversy.  People asked, “Do I have anything to worry about?”

This program allows police to take the tracking file off people's iPhones. The tracking file stores information on the user's location for the last six months. Photo by Jacob Rasch.

Anytime your smartphone is on, it knows where you are, or more accurately, where it is.  It’s constantly transmitting data to the nearest cell tower, and this data is readily accessible by your cell phone carrier.  Cell phone carriers routinely share this information with dozens of other companies. 

For example, when you use Google Maps to find out where you are, your cell phone provider provides your precise location to Google, who in turn labels your location on a map with a blue dot.  Hundreds of other apps, from Facebook to Urbanspoon, receive your location data as well. The problem with the embedded file is not that the phone knows where you are, but that it stores the information for up to six months and can transmit it back to Apple.

Law enforcement officers discovered this file and bought a computer program made by the British company Forensic Telecommunications Services, called the iXAM, to take the file from people’s phones in order to track those people’s locations.  They then used this device at routine traffics stops, requesting to see people’s phones and then swiping the file. 

By merely stopping someone at a traffic light, law enforcement could “stalk” that person, with the ability to see everywhere that person had been for the last six months.  This is a clear violation of not only security, but personal privacy rights as well.

Apple has recently released an upgrade to the operating system that allows the user to delete the file simply by turning off location services. However, the company has neglected to address what it’s actually doing with the accessed information they store.  Third-party companies could do nearly anything with your location information, from tracking, to location-based marketing, to even catching criminals.

There is a trade-off between the good and the bad of location-based services.  While they can sometimes be valuable, remember that they can use your location for almost any purpose.  So, before using applications that require a location, think twice, and read the user license agreement. The point is be careful, because you never know who’s watching you.