Report: Both Apple & Google Smartphones Transmit Location Data

Both Apple’s iPhone and smartphones powered by Google’s Android OS are busily transmitting location data of their users back to the two companies. The story comes to us amidst a related story about iPhones and iPads storing location data on the owner’s Mac or PC, but The Wall Street Journal found that Android smartphones and iPhones are actually transmitting location data back to Google and Apple.

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The Wall Street Journal reported that a security researcher named Samy Kamkar found an HTC Android smartphone was gathering location data every few seconds and then transmitting that data back to Google “several times an hour.” The researcher also said that the device was transmitting a unique identifier that could tie the data to the specific user, and that Google was also collecting the name, location and signal strength of any nearby WiFi networks.

Google had previously stated that the data it collects is anonymous, and that it furthermore deleted the start and end points of trips its devices were making. The company has also said that it used that data for such Google services as its traffic maps. Mr. Kamkar, however, showed The Journal that the data being sent to Google included the above-mentioned unique identifier.

The Apple revelation came from a letter Apple sent to U.S. Reps. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) in 2010. That letter acknowledged that iPhones were collecting location data (GPS coordinates and nearby WiFi networks) throughout the day, and then transmitting that data back to Apple once every 12 hours.

The Journal also pointed out that Samy Kamkar is the same Samy Kamkar that was convicted of a felony charge of computer hacking in 2005 after creating a worm that brought down MySpace, and that he also created a kind of cookie that is difficult to delete in order to demonstrate the vulnerabilities in modern Web browsers. After receiving Mr. Kamkar’s findings about his Android device, the newspaper hired another security researcher, Ashkan Soltani, to confirm those findings, which he did.

One reason Google and Apple are interested in collecting data on WiFi hotspots is because this is one of the key datapoints used in pinpointing a user’s location. This is the kind of thing most smartphone users use frequently when using an app like Google Maps or another “GPS-assisted” map service.

Apple relies on Google Maps for its iPhone map app, and the company has purchased enough map-related companies to be rumored to be developing its own competing service. Developing its own database of WiFi hotspots, therefore, would be key to developing its own mapping services.

Going back to the letter sent to Representatives Markey and Barton, Apple wrote that it was developing a “database with known location information. This information is batched and then encrypted and transmitted to Apple over a Wi-Fi Internet connection every twelve hours (or later if the device does not have Wi-Fi Internet access at that time).”

Apple also stipulated that the data was not tied to the user, but also separated that data from the data collected via its iAd mobile ad network, which does tie location data to the user. That data is then used to serve out ads tailored to the user without giving that data to the advertiser.

All of this is stirring up increased interest in the privacy implications and ramifications of smartphones. Regulators on the state and national level in the U.S. are looking into the issue, Senator Al Franken of Minnesota has added his Congressional voice to the issue that has already been raised by the above-mentioned Representatives.