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Sunday, April 24, 2011

View the Secret Location Data on Your iPhone

Unless you do not stay tuned with iPhone news, you should know about the privacy fear that wasraised by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden in recent days. The researchers reported that Apple’s iPhone and iPad are secretly tracking your location. When you sync the device with your computer, iTunes also transfers the location data and stores in an unencrypted file.

As the report claimed, ever since the debut of iOS 4.0, nearly all iOS devices including iPhone and iPad 3G have started to store a long list of locations and time stamps. So far we do not know why Apple tracks our move and secretly stores the location data on computer. We just know the location data is stored in a database file named “consolidated.db”. This file is found on the device, as well as, the computer that you perform the iTunes Sync. Here is an excerpt from the researchers’ blog post about what location data is stored in the file:
All iPhones appear to log your location to a file called “consolidated.db.” This contains latitude-longitude coordinates along with a timestamp. The coordinates aren’t always exact, but they are pretty detailed. There can be tens of thousands of data points in this file, and it appears the collection started with iOS 4, so there’s typically around a year’s worth of information at this point. Our best guess is that the location is determined by cell-tower triangulation, and the timing of the recording is erratic, with a widely varying frequency of updates that may be triggered by traveling between cells or activity on the phone itself.

How To View Your Location Data

So how can you view the consolidated.db file to uncover your track? The researchers have released an app called iPhone Tracker which is free for download. The app is for Mac only but you can find the Windows port here.
Simply install the application on your Windows or Mac. Once it launches, the application automatically scan through your iTunes backup file to locate the hidden “consolidated.db” file. If the file is found, the application will visualize the location data in an interactive map. Just double click to zoom in and check out where you’ve been. You can even hit the play button to let the app to show the location information chronologically. The way the app visualizes the location point is quite impressive.

Don’t Panic!

As you can see, the app can easily tap into your location data without your permission. While the iPhone Tracker app serves as a demo which doesn’t collect your location data, it’s obvious that any applications can gain access to your location history. However, don’t panic! First, the location data that are stored in the database is far from precise. As the researchers explained, Apple does not store the GPS data directly. Instead the location is determined by by triangulating against the nearest cell-phone towers. Secondly, there is no evidence Apple transmits the location data beyond your device and any machines you sync it with.

Encrypt Your iTunes Backup

From my point of view, the immediate issue is how you can prevent the location data from unauthorized access. So how can you prevent other apps for reading the location data? The best way is to enable encryption for your iTunes backup. In iTunes, after you connect your device via USB, you can enable “Encrypt iPhone Backup” under the “Options” area. This will instruct iTunes to encrypt your backup together with the location database.
Excluding the concern about why Apple secretly collects your location data, the iPhone Tracker app offers an impressive way to visualize your track. Before you encrypt your iTunes backup, download the free app and have a try.
To learn more about the iPhone Tracker, you can check out the video to see it in action.


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