Steve Jobs: Apple Doesn’t Track iPhone User Locations

Following reports that the iPhone maintains a log file detailing user’s locations, one customer emailed company CEO Steve Jobs asking what’s going on. Mr. Jobs replied and said Apple doesn’t access the collected location data, and added that Google culls location information that Android-based phones log.

According to MacRumors, the iPhone owner that emailed Mr. Jobs asked:

Could you please explain the necessity of the passive location-tracking tool embedded in my iPhone? It’s kind of unnerving knowing that my exact location is being recorded at all times. Maybe you could shed some light on this for me before I switch to a Droid. They don’t track me.

Apparently Mr. Jobs replied to the customer with his usual terse response style:

Oh yes they do. We don’t track anyone. The info circulating around is false.

Word that the iPhone logs detailed information about user locations spread like wildfire across the Internet several days ago, prompting concerns over privacy. The logs are stored on user’s iPhones and in unencrypted backup files on their computer.

iPhone location log file dataThe iPhone maintains a detailed location log

Assuming the email conversation with Mr. Jobs is legit, Apple isn’t accessing the contents of those log files. The Wall Street Journal, however, disagrees with Mr. Jobs statement — at least in part.

The newspaper claimed its tests showed the data in the iPhone location logs was being transmitted to Apple, and that Android-phones were gathering location data every few seconds and transmitting that information to Google several times an hour.

Apple has previously confirmed that at least some location information is gathered from iPhone users. In a letter to the U.S. House of Representatives in 2010, Apple answered some privacy questions by stating that location information based on nearby Wi-Fi networks is relayed back to the company about every 12 hours.

Apple also said in the past that it uses location data it collects to build a database of Wi-Fi hotspot locations, just as Google does, and that the data is collected anonymously. Presumably, since Mr. Jobs’s statement seems to contradict his company’s earlier statement, either there has been a policy change, or he meant the specific data logged on user’s hard drives isn’t accessed.

Collecting detailed activity about user activity isn’t something new. Cell service providers maintain logs that track user locations, too, although their data lists are maintained on their own servers instead of user’s computers.

The fact that Apple is maintaining copies of those logs on user’s hard drives prompted Senator Al Franken (D-MN) to send a letter to Mr. Jobs asking for answers to questions about how the information is stored, and whether or not it is shared with other companies.

“There are numerous ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors,” Senator Franken said.

Apple and Google have not yet issued formal statements about their location logging practices.