Why Security Researcher Who Discovered iPhone Location Data Long Ago Almost Went Unnoticed

As more information about the “secret” location-data file on Apple’s iPhone 4s and iPad 3Gs becomes available, the story surrounding this discovery is becoming more about the people involved than the location data itself. As it turns out, Alex Levinson, a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, had long discovered this file in his research and work with forensic firm Katana Forensics. Katana Forensics produces a tool called Lantern, which can extract this data and map it in Google Earth’s KMZ format. Levinson also presented his findings in an IEEE journal all the way back in 2007. So why did the blogosphere and mainstream press go crazy about this affair yesterday (including me) and why was Levinson, who emailed virtually all major publications about this yesterday afternoon Pacific Time, ignored by all but a few outlets (again: including me)?

Note: a lot of this is inside baseball about how the blog sausage is made. If that’s not of interest to you, here is the tl;dr: Levinson’s email to the press was flawed and his research was only available in academic publications.

Why Was Levinson Mostly Ignored?

Talking to Gigaom’s Bobbie Johnson, Levinson explained his findings in detail, but also made this observation:

He adds that the press missed the story first time around, and now seems more focused on the horror of data storage than the reality (there, for example, is no evidence that the data is sent back to Apple at the moment).

‘I do blame the press somewhat for sensationalizing them without recourse,’ he says. ‘I emailed 20 of the top media outlets who covered this, linking them to my side — none of them replied, except a famous blogger who cursed me.’” (my emphasis)

To his point about missing the story the first time around: it’s a point well taken, but I should also note that his research was published in 2007 in the Hawaii International Conference for System Sciences 44 – not a publication most journalists and bloggers read at bedtime. He also published more about this in a book on iOS forensic analysis, but that, too, isn’t something even those of us who did a bit of research on this topic yesterday could have easily spotted. The sad reality is, neither the press nor blogosphere was going to pick up on this story unless somebody made us aware of it. As far as I know, nobody did.

As to why he was ignored yesterday: Every day, press and bloggers get pitches from “experts” about various topics. The reality is, we ignore 99% of those (and no, it wasn’t me who cursed at him). There were a few problems with Levinson’s pitch that made it even easier to ignore:

a) he didn’t use bcc and cc’ed everybody on the list (a pet peeve of reporters and other cubicle dwellers alike). Given the amount of emails flowing into most bloggers’ and reporters’ inboxes, emails like that immediately go to the bottom of the pile, especially after the second comment about the missing bcc arrives. A rookie PR mistake.

b) none of the pertinent information (links to the old publication etc.) was in the email – just a link to a blog post and to a blog nobody had ever heard of. Also, statements like “You will want to read this” and “it would be in your best interest to review what I have to say” are something most of us read about 50 times a day and just ignore.

The fact that I failed to see the value in Levinson’s pitch is obviously nothing to be proud of, but I thought you deserved a bit more of an explanation for why this story went mostly unnoticed the first time around and why Levinson’s voice was not heard until the news cycle was already over. I’m glad it’s being heard loud and clear now.

Frederic Lardinois founded SiliconFilter in 2011. Before starting this site, he wrote about 1,500 articles for ReadWriteWeb. His areas of interest are consumer web and mobile apps, as well as Internet-connected devices like cars, smart sensors and toasters. You can reach him at [email protected]

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