Apple’s Secret Location File: Is it Just About Cell Towers?


The iPhone location scandal dominated the tech news today. While early reports seemed to indicate that all iPhone 4s and 3G-enabled iPads were keeping precise logs of everybody’s location over time, the reality that emerged over the course of the day is a bit more complicated. Atlanta-based tech blogger Will Clarke took a closer look at the data tonight and argues that Apple is decidedly not keeping a log of the phone’s location in this secret file, but is only storing the location of cell towers.

Clark plotted the raw data from the file on his phone (the iPhoneTracker app’ only shows an approximation to obscure the exact location from snoopers) and compared it to GPS data he collected during a bike ride. The discrepancy between the two data sets leads him to believe the phone is only storing the locations of cell towers it gets in contact with.

His conclusion: “The only thing that makes sense is that the iPhone is actually storing the locations of the cell phone towers that it communicates with. My guess is that the iPhone uses this data to help it locate cell towers if it is in the same location again in the future.”

What’s Apple Really Storing? Cell Tower Locations

After reading this, I took a closer look at the data on my phone and I think I can back his theory up with what I found. Here is a plot of data from the iPhoneTracker app from my recent trip to Maui. You can see that the plot actually puts me on a neighboring island at times – likely because it get a ping from cell towers there while we were on the beach.


So why is Apple storing this data then? It doesn’t look like the phones actually transmit any of this data back to Apple’s servers. Unless this is just sloppy programming and a developer forgot to set a function to erase a temporary log file (not something Apple is known for), there must be some reason for this file to exist. My best guess: the iPhone relies on this database to speed up GPS reception without having to ping Apple’s servers to do so (which makes a difference, especially now that Apple has moved to its own location database).

Still Creepy

Whatever the reason for the file’s existence, none of this absolves Apple from the responsibility to at least encrypt this data. Even though the low accuracy does make the data somewhat less useful for those who want to use it for nefarious purposes, it can still show what town you were in and when. That’s not quite as bad as being able to place you on a specific street at a specific time, but even the low-resolution data still has serious privacy implications.

10:18 pm

Google Navigation Now Routes You Around Traffic


Google just put another nail in the coffin of dedicated GPS units and paid mobile apps. Google Maps Navigation now offers users the ability to route them around traffic jams. Until today, Navigation would simply calculate the most efficient route and send you on your merry way without checking traffic conditions. The new version, however, will look at both current and historical traffic data to calculate the best route to take. According to Google, Navigation users now use the app to drive more than 35 million miles per day.

google maps navigation traffic routing

Google Maps Navigation is only available for Android phones.

With this move, Google makes it even harder for dedicated GPS units and paid apps from providers like Navigon, TomTom and others to compete with its free offerings (though they still have some advantages, especially when it comes to working offline). On the iPhone, of course, Google provides the basic functionality for the Maps application, but doesn’t offer any turn-by-turn navigation there. It doesn’t look like this will change with the upcoming iOS 4.3 release. There have been persistent rumors that Apple could introduce its own navigation app in a future version of iOS, however, and that Google could bring Navigation to the iPhone as well.

11:26 am

Using WiFi to Create Smarter, Safer Cars and Intersections


A few weeks ago, I wrote that your next car might just have its own IP address. Besides talking to the Internet, though, there is also a lot of utility in using short-range networks that can link multiple cars together into a single, ad-hoc network and alert drivers of potential hazards. Today, Ford announced a new initiative that will rely on short-range WiFi signals to enable cars to create local networks to exchange data about their positions and speeds to avoid accidents.

Of course, this system only works once a lot of cars and manufacturers offer this feature and agree on a standard, but as the video below shows, there is a lot of potential for this. Cars that can talk to each other (and maybe even get traffic information from local “smart” intersections or highway on-ramps) don’t have to rely on expensive systems like radar. Instead, just basic GPS information, coupled with an ad-hoc WiFi network and some smart software could, as Ford puts it, “warn drivers if there is a risk of collision when changing lanes, approaching a stationary or parked vehicle, or if another driver loses control.”

Not Just Smart Cars, But Smart Intersections, Too

Ford is also proposing “smart intersections” that would be able to talk to cars and be able to “monitor traffic signal status, GPS data and digital maps to assess potential hazards, and then transmit the information to vehicles.”

The company is working with other car makers and the U.S. government to create standards for bringing this technology to deployment. In addition to all of this, the company also announced that it is doubling its intelligent vehicle investment in 2011 and plans to have demonstration vehicles that offer this WiFi-based technology on the road in the next few months.

10:28 am