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iPhone tracking: What you need to know

John D. Sutter
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Researchers reveal iPhone tracking file that shows users' locations
  • This location info is stored on the phone and on a synced computer
  • The data is unencrypted, so researchers worry it could be stolen
  • Here are tips on how to stop this information from being collected

(CNN) -- News that iPhones and iPad 3Gs apparently collect continuous information about the whereabouts of their users and store that data in a secret file has lots of Apple fans worried about their privacy.

Two researchers on Wednesday unveiled the details of this secret file, called "consolidated.db," which stores location info going back to June 2010. That's when Apple updated its mobile operating system, called iOS, to version 4.0.

Apple hasn't commented on these allegations, and it appears the company does not have continuous access to this location data, according to the researchers, one of whom says he is a former Apple employee.

All of this may be confusing for iPhone owners, especially since this news terrifies some and seems like a lot of fun to others. To help clear things up, here's a quick round-up of what you need to know about iPhone tracking and your security:

How does the iPhone collect this location data?

It uses cell phone towers to triangulate an approximate location. This isn't as accurate as GPS, which uses satellites to pinpoint a phone's whereabouts.

How often is a location recorded?

At seemingly random intervals, but fairly often, according to Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan, the researchers and journalists who publicized this secret location file.

iPhone tracking your movements?

Where is this data stored?

On the mobile device and on the computer the device is synced to.

Who has access to it?

In theory, only you. Apple does not appear to have access to this data, at least not on a real-time basis, according to the researchers. So it appears the company doesn't know where you are right now.

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Mobile phone companies also collect this type of data, but, as the researchers point out, that data "normally requires a court order to gain access to it, whereas this is available to anyone who can get their hands on your phone or computer."

The location file is unencrypted, so anyone with access to your phone or computer could, in theory, get access to it and know where you've been. The researchers, in their report, say Apple has "made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements."

Could someone steal this data?

It's possible someone could look at this file and know where you've been since June. But they would have to gain access to your phone or your computer, where the consolidated.db file is stored.

The researchers see little risk in this, but they note that there are more questions than answers when it comes to who can see this stuff and why it's collected and stored on phones and computers in the first place.

They write: "Don't panic. ... There's no immediate harm that would seem to come from the availability of this data. Nor is there evidence to suggest this data is leaving your custody. But why this data is stored and how Apple intends to use it -- or not -- are important questions that need to be explored."

What if I want to see a map of all the places I've been?

Some people are having fun looking at maps of where they've been over the course of 10 months. The researchers who publicized this file also created an open-source program called iPhone Tracker, which is free for download and can be used to create a map of everywhere you've been since the tracking started.

Which gadgets collect this location info?

Only iPhones and iPads that have 3G connections and have been updated to operating system 4.0 or later. To see which version of iOS is running on your phone, click on the "Settings" app, then choose "General" and then "About." Halfway down the page you'll see a number next to the word "Version." That's the iOS version that's currently running on your phone or iPad.

It's unclear if this type of file is stored on iPhones on Verizon's network or on Android smartphones. The researchers say they're looking into it.

Can I stop this information from being collected?

It's not easy. You can delete this data from your computer, making it less likely a hacker or trolling family member would access it.

To find the file, follow this pathway on your machine: /Users/Library/Application Support/MobileSync/Backups/

But, the researchers warn, this file will be updated again every time you sync your phone to a computer. So deleting the data is an arduous task.

People who jailbreak their phones -- read more about jailbreaking here if you're not familiar -- can download a new app called Untrackerd, which claims to delete the consolidated.db file as it's created. That app is available from the Cydia app store, which is not sanctioned by Apple.

What else can I do if I'm worried about this?

The researchers suggest encrypting your data through iTunes. This makes it more difficult for anyone with access to your computer to steal this data.

To do this, open iTunes, plug in your iPhone or iPad and click on the device name when it shows up in the "Devices" category on the left side of the screen.

On the device's home screen, scroll down to the "Options" menu and click the box that says "Encrypt iPhone Backup."

A note from Apple on this: "Encrypted backups are indicated by a padlock icon (as visible below in the Deleting a Backup section), and a password is required to restore the information to iPhone."

Is everyone upset about the tracking file?

No. Plenty of people, especially in the tech elite, think it's fun to use the iPhone Tracker program to see a map of where they've been recently.

They point out that cell phone companies already collect this data. This just makes it accessible to users, if they want to see it.

Who discovered this file and how did they do it?

Allan and Warden, two researchers and writers, say they came across it while working on a data visualization about the Japan earthquake.

From their site: "We'd been discussing doing a visualization of mobile data, and while he was researching into what was available, Alasdair discovered this file. At first we weren't sure how much data was there, but after we dug further and visualized the extracted data, it became clear that there was a scary amount of detail on our movements. It also became obvious that at least some other people knew about it, but it wasn't being publicized."

They also posted a video about the experience.

They're not the first to come across this, but they were the first to grab the public's attention with this information. Some bloggers have pointed out that other versions of Apple's iOS stored similar files, but they were harder to find.

Why would Apple collect and store this info on phones and computers?

It's unclear. The company hasn't commented. But some bloggers and the researchers themselves speculate they could be looking toward future applications for phones. From the researchers:

"One guess might be that they have new features in mind that require a history of your location, but that's pure speculation. The fact that it's transferred across devices when you restore or migrate is evidence the data-gathering isn't accidental," they write.

Did they share this information with Apple?

The researchers say they did, but they haven't heard back. Apple has not responded to CNN's requests for comment, either.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken also has written a letter to Apple expressing concern and asking for answers to a few key questons about this file, such as why it's stored in an unencrypted format.

[TECH: NEWSPULSE]

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