Researchers find Apple iPhone and iPad 3G program stashes location data

American researchers have revealed that personal computer pioneer Apple installs a program in its iPhone smartphones and iPad 3G tablets that records the device’s geographic location in a hidden file, ABC News said on Thursday.

ABC said Apple did not reply to an interview request.

The authors of the research, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, announced the discovery ahead of a presentation at an O’Reilly Where 2.0 Conference in the USA dedicated to web applications and services.

They said the data collection was launched when Apple released its latest iOS4 mobile operating system. Rumors about the secret “spying” applications appeared just following the release and now the information is confirmed.

“We are not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it’s clearly intentional, as the database is being restored across backups, and even device migrations,” the researchers said.

The user’s location history is unprotected as it can be transferred to any machine synced with the device, breaking personal privacy, and providing limitless possibilities for creativity of people worried about cheating spouses, criminals and secret services.

To demonstrate exactly how Apple devices record the location, Allen and Warden created a web application that plots a user’s iPhone data on a map. The application looks for the hidden data in the device’s backup files and shows the location history on a map.

“The cell phone companies have always had this data, but it takes a court order to access it,” they said. “Now this information is sitting in plain view, unprotected from the world.”

There is no evidence yet that the data is being transferred beyond the devices or computers that sync with them, they said.

Aaron Higbee, chief technology officer of mobile security firm Intrepidus Group, said that Apple may have created the location files as it planned to roll out a future product or because they were an artifact of another feature on the phone, despite the program’s privacy violations.

Digital rights advocates consider the latest Apple discovery as an example of regulativory imperfection of location data.

International privacy advocacy group Privacy International wrote an open letter to Apple head Steve Jobs to make it clear why Apple devices with the iPhone operating system gather data about geographic locations of iOS users.

“We know that this is a file on the device, on the computer, and is transferred to new devices. We are also aware that there is no available information on whether this file is ever actually accessed by Apple or by third parties. This is why we would like to know more,” Privacy International Director Simon Davies said in the open letter.

“This information being stored on the device raises concerns about access by third party iOS (applications) who collect data and share with advertisers, by police and border controls agencies that in many countries routinely look through phones without warrants, as well as access concerns if the phone is lost,” Davies said.

Davies asked Jobs to explain why the file which stores locations had been created, who and what had access to this file, what measures were in place within iOS and OS X to ensure that the file was not accessed for other purposes by other parties, and what measures Apple was taking to allow individuals to consent to the collection and use of this information.

MOSCOW, April 21 (RIA Novosti)

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