The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

The student news site of Marquette University

Marquette Wire

Apple is watching you

Apple, intentionally or not, is tracking iPhone and iPad users’ locations. Photo by Emily Waller / [email protected]

They can call, text, e-mail, check Facebook, give directions, shoot video and play games. And they’re quickly becoming everyone’s favorite gadgets. But what happens when smart phones know too much?

Security researchers discovered last week that Apple’s iPhones store a file with records of where the device has been and when it was there. A further investigation by The Wall Street Journal revealed that Google’s Android smart phones do the same thing, and that both types of smart phones regularly transmit this location data back to Apple and Google.

In a letter sent to U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas), Apple said it “intermittently” records location data on iPhones, including GPS coordinates and nearby Wi-Fi networks. Apple said it then collects that data every 12 hours.

Google, meanwhile, recorded similar location data every few seconds and collected it several times an hour, according to the Wall Street Journal investigation. Google came under fire last year for inadvertently collecting e-mail addresses, passwords and other personal data from Wi-Fi networks via the cars used to create the Street View feature on its Google Maps service.

Both Apple and Google have declined to comment on the findings. But Google has said in the past that it uses location data to create traffic maps, taking advantage of the widespread use of smart phones to discern how fast traffic is moving.

Location data from smart phones can be used for a variety of purposes, including allowing users to find nearby businesses.

The privacy implications of the findings will likely be investigated by the federal government, said Craig Andrews, chair of the marketing department and a former Federal Trade Commission employee.

“There certainly may be reasons why a user may want this feature,” Andrews said in an e-mail. “But they should have the ability to opt-in before this is collected or tracked.”

Google has defended its collection of location data, saying it doesn’t do so unless users opt-in. When an Android phone is first activated, the user is prompted to activate location services. The box to accept the feature is checked by default.

Both Apple and Google have said they don’t tie location data to a user’s personal information, and users can prevent tracking by turning off location services. But a test by The Wall Street Journal revealed that Apple records and collects location data from iPhones even when location services are turned off.

But the outcry over the potential loss of privacy may be an overreaction, said Bruce Boyden, an assistant professor of law, in an e-mail.

“A thief or snoop with access to your phone or computer will be able to get a hold of a lot more damaging things than your location data,” Boyden said, citing passwords, e-mails and Internet history as examples. “For most people, I don’t think this file is a huge security breach.”

Boyden also pointed out that credit card companies and banks have long been able to effectively track users through their purchases, and phone companies can already track user locations by determining which tower a cell phone is connected to.

Brandon Barutt, a freshman in the College of Arts & Sciences and an iPhone user, was also not overly concerned about the findings.

“It’s concerning that they have the ability to (track user locations) and have done so discreetly,” Barutt said. “However, it’s fairly irrelevant to my everyday life.”

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