This week, news broke that the iPhones and iPads running iOS 4 were storing detailed location information for the device going back a year or more. The privacy implications were made all the more serious by the revelation that the data was stored in an unencrypted file that anyone with access to the phone could download. And if you sync your phone to a PC, the file would be accessible there as well.
Many people wrote in to ask us if this is an issue for Android phones, as well. It turns out it is. A Swedish researcher, Magnus Eriksson, found that Android phones store location data in much the same way as iPhones do, but for a much shorter period of time. Typically, the cell tower data are limited to around 50 records going back 12 hours (Wi-Fi location records are limited to 200 going back 48 hours). And, the data are more difficult to access than on the iPhone and not backed up to your computer. So the privacy implications are much less than with the iPhone.
But, the story doesn't stop there. According to the Wall Street Journal, it turns out that both Android and iOS phones are continuously transmitting your location data to Google and Apple, respectively. In the case of Android your phone's unique identifier is included in the data sent. It's not yet clear whether that is true for Apple as well.
From a personal privacy perspective, I am more concerned about the data stored on my phone than what is sent to Google or Apple. In terms of truly malicious or detrimental activity, I see more situations where this could occur from someone finding a lost phone or accessing your computer to download your location history than from Apple or Google's tracking. But both situations are troubling.
Fortunately, the recent brouhaha is causing congress to get involved. Both Senator Al Franken and Representative Edward Markey have sent letters to Apple requesting more information on the matter. We'll see where it goes from here.