While Apple Inc. has yet to comment on a new study that found its iPhones store data on users'
locations, the company has previously revealed to lawmakers that it does collect such information.
Apple automatically transmits to itself location information about users of its smartphones,
according to a letter the company sent to U.S. Reps.Edward Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) last year.
The letter, which is publicly available on Rep. Markey's website, became newsworthy this week
in light of findings from two researchers who uncovered a file on iPhones that keeps a record of
where the phone has been and when it was there. The file is unencrypted and stored by default.
The discovery of this location file touched off a furor among iPhone owners who could see for
the first time a trove of location data about themselves stored on their phones. The researchers,
Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, said they had no evidence that the file was being transmitted
But the letter indicates that the company is indeed collecting similar data from iPhones that have
location services turned on (as they are by default, according to Apple's website) and use apps
that require location. Apple says it will then "intermittently" collect location data, including GPS
coordinates. It doesn't specify how often a person must use the app for intermittent collection to
Apple gathers the data to help build a "database with known location information," the letter
says. "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)," the company wrote in the July letter to Congress.
Apple didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
The outcry follows earlier revelations by The Wall Street Journal that many of the most popular
smartphone apps go even further in transmitting personal information about phone users—by
sending location and other data to third parties, sometimes without user consent.
A Journal examination of 101 smartphone apps showed that 47 sent location information to
other companies without users' awareness or consent, and 56 sent the phones' unique device
ID. Companies receiving such data included Apple and Google Inc., as well as advertising
In Apple's letter to Mr. Markey, the company said it
began offering location services in 2008. The
company wrote that its early cellphones used
location databases maintained by Google Inc. and
Skyhook Inc., but that in April 2010 Apple began
relying on its own location databases. "These
databases must be updated continuously to account
for, among other things, the ever-changing physical
landscape, more innovative uses of mobile
technology, and the increasing number of Apple's
customers," the company wrote.
On Wednesday, Rep. Markey sent a follow-up letter
to Apple asking why the company is storing
customer location data on its phones and whether it
is using the data for commercial purposes, which could violate the Communications Act. "Apple
needs to safeguard the personal location information of its users to ensure that an iPhone
doesn't become an iTrack," Rep. Markey said in a statement.
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