Conspiracy Theory: Is the iPhone Really Tracking You?

Dave Courbanou

April 26, 2011

2 Min Read
Conspiracy Theory: Is the iPhone Really Tracking You?

Conspiracy theorists are working overtime with the recent news that Apple is tracking users’ every move through the iPhone 4. But it’s really just overblown hype, for many reasons. Read on for a reality check.

First, the background: At the recent Where 2.0 Conference in Santa Clara, Calif., researchers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden presented evidence that iPhones and 3G iPads running iOS 4 store a list of locations and timestamps. On the surface, that seems a little stalker-like, until you think about how much information users willingly put out there about themselves.

Social media sites such as Facebook, FourSquare and Google Latitude — not to mention geo-tagged tweets and photos — have the ability to pinpoint users’ locations. In fact, they reveal more about users and where people can find them than the “consolidated.db” iPhone 4 file, which is what is garnering all the attention from the grassy knoll crowd.

It’s gotten so much attention (thanks to Pete Warden’s blog and iPhone Tracker app) that at least one federal lawsuit has been leveled against Apple regarding the file. Steve Job’s official response, has been characteristically terse and trenchant.

We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.

But, not only is Apple not accessing users’ consolidate.db file, the file is only accessible to the end user via a jailbroken iPhone or (more easily) on the computer that has been synced with the iPhone. What’s more, those who are paranoid about the information it contains can easily encrypt that data through iTunes.

Even if Apple was collecting this information, it’s unlikely the company would be doing something nefarious with it. Yes, it’s alarming the file even exists, but it’s pretty useless, since it doesn’t contain users’ locations.

Rather, the file simply keeps a record of cell towers it has connected with. A jealous boyfriend/girlfriend or a crazy stalker would have access only to the general vicinity of where a user has been, but not the exact location. Conversely, users who check in the same place every day on FourSquare are telling the world exactly where they are, when they’re there and how often they’re there.

Of course, this is bad PR for Apple. The company should address the problem publicly. There will always be conspiracy theories, but the consolidate.db file doesn’t hold any useful information. Which means this theory doesn’t hold any water.

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