FAQ :: Can iPhones and iPads track my location and movements?

Yes. Privacy fears were raised as researchers reveal a file on iPhone and 3G-enabled iPads that stores location coordinates and timestamps of owner’s movements. Security researchers have discovered that Apple’s I Phone keeps track of where you go–and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronized.

The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

“Apple has made it possible for almost anybody–a jealous spouse, a private detective–with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been,” said Pete Warden, one of the researchers.

Only the iPhone records the user’s location in this way, say Warden and Alasdair Allan, the data scientists who discovered the file and are presenting their findings at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco in April 2011.

Although mobile networks already record phones’ locations, it is only available to the police and other recognized organizations following a court order under the Regulation of Investigatory Power Act. Standard phones do not record location data.

Ministers of Paliament in 2009 criticized Google for its “Latitude” system, which allowed people to enable their mobile to give out details of their location to trusted contacts. At the time MPs said that Latitude “could substantially endanger user privacy,” but Google pointed out that users had to specifically choose to make their data available.

The iPhone system, by contrast, appears to record the data whether or not the user agrees. Apple declined to comment on why the file is created or whether it can be disabled. The Guardian has confirmed that 3G-enabled devices including the iPad also retain the data and copy it to the owner’s computer.

If someone were to steal an iPhone and “jailbreak” it, giving them direct access to the files it contains, they could extract the location database directly. Alternatively, anyone with direct access to a user’s computer could run the application and see a visualization of their movements. Encrypting data on the computer is one way to protect against it, though that still leaves the file on the phone.

[1] Arthur, Charles. iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go. 4.20.2011. The Guardian.