Your iPhone May Be Logging Your Physical Positions

It should come as no surprise that smart phones can track their own locations. If you've ever used your phone to find, say, the nearest sushi restaurant, you know your phone knows where you've been. But two computer researchers say the iPhone continues to keep track of you even when you think you've turned off the location services — and no one is sure why.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

If you've ever used a smartphone to find, say, the nearest sushi restaurant, it should come as no surprise that the phone can track your own location.

Well, two researchers say the iPhone continues to keep track of you even when you think you've turned off the location services, and NPR's Martin Kaste says that no one quite knows why.

MARTIN KASTE: You can turn off the GPS function on your iPhone, but it can still figure out its location by looking at nearby cell phone towers and Wi-Fi signals. And now, it turns out the iPhone is constantly recording that information and tucking it into a hidden file.

Mr. ALASDAIR ALLAN (Computer Researcher): That's the thing that most upsets me.

KASTE: Alasdair Allan is a computer researcher who recently stumbled across the file. Looking at the file produced by his own iPhone, he was surprised by how detailed it was: for nine months, his iPhone logged its location up to 1,000 times a day.

Mr. ALLAN: I loved to look at this data. This data was a great dataset to visualize. I just wouldn't want anybody else to have it.

KASTE: Allan isn't the first to discover the iPhone tracking file. In fact, it's been something of a professional secret among forensic technologists. Those are the people who help police to get evidence off of phones and other devices, people like Alex Levinson.

Mr. ALEX LEVINSON (Katana Forensics): I don't - I really don't see it as a problem, I see it as, you know, a bonus. We're making the life of law enforcement easier.

KASTE: Levinson works for a company called Katana Forensics. He says he's surprised the iPhone tracking file is getting so much media attention.

Mr. LEVINSON: I guess from my perspective, maybe I was a little blind to the public's perception of this. I mean, phone forensics have been doing this for a while.

KASTE: And Levinson says iPhone users should rest easy: There's no evidence that the location data are being sent back to Apple, and police still need a court order to get it.

But privacy advocates say that misses the larger point: The location file is a tempting target for other people, too. It could be subpoenaed in a lawsuit or in a messy divorce, or it could be stolen by a computer virus.

Peter Eckersley at the Electronic Frontier Foundation says Apple failed in its duty to inform its customers what their iPhones are up to.

Mr. PETER ECKERSLEY (Electronic Frontier Foundation): The problem is just not providing a clear indication to the user that this information is being recorded and a nice easy way to get rid of it.

KASTE: But Eckersley says Apple isn't alone in this. Tech companies are generally opaque about what kind of location data they collect. Amazon, for instance, doesn't disclose what, if any, location data it saves from all those Kindles out there.

And Eckersley says even cell phone companies can be mysterious about what they do with the location data from their networks.

Mr. ECKERSLEY: We're really only just starting to turn over this rock to see what's going on underneath, and I'm sure there will continue to be revealing stories about this kind of location tracking in the future.

KASTE: Right now, the big question is: What is the iPhone tracking file for? It first appeared in a system update last summer, and some computer experts speculate that it may be the groundwork for some future location service.

Jeff Fischbach, a forensic technologist in California, says attitudes toward Apple might be very different right now if, instead of hiding the tracking file, the company had advertised it.

Mr. JEFF FISCHBACH (Forensic Technologist): What's funny is I think you could just sell people devices and say: Oh, and by the way, in case you ever thought you'd forget about what you were doing last week, our device has this new added feature, if you want to pay for it, that will journal your day for you.

KASTE: That may have been the plan, but for now, Apple won't say. It hasn't responded to several requests for an interview. And yesterday, even Senator Al Franken weighed in, sending a letter to Steve Jobs, asking for an explanation. So far, he hasn't heard back.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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