Law enforcement already using iPhone location data in investigations

by Phil Hornshaw

A presentation at the Where 2.0 conference in San Francisco about the iPhone tracking cellular tower location data has turned into a full-blown scandal, but the “discovery” by two researchers that the iPhone logs and stores everywhere its owner goes has been known for some time.

That’s according to Alex Levinson, a forensic researcher who wrote extensively about the phone’s location tracking a year ago, when apparently, most everyone in the media missed it.

The story goes like this: Two UK researchers gave a presentation about a not-so-hidden file they discovered in the iOS 4.0 software that was recently released for the iPhone (it apparently just moved locations between older software and these later updates). That file nabs and stores location data all the time, logging what cell phone towers the phone links up to. It seems to be an intentional storage of data, even though, as Levinson points out in his blog, there’s no evidence that the information is being sent anyplace or that Apple is aggregating it. It’s just sitting on the iPhone, waiting to be used.

Partially, it has been stated by various people, this information is necessary for running all those crazy location-snagging apps that track deals and help you navigate and do any number of other location-specific things. Levinson says part of the reason the iPhone works so well is that it has all this data readily available for all apps to use, and they can all access it from the same point at the same time.

But then again, why the long-term storage? The UK researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, say that data can be stored for a year or more, and that seems a little excessive, especially without any clear indication from Apple or anyone else as to why the information is being stored.

According to a story from GigaOM, Levinson says the location information is already being used by law enforcement agencies (he wouldn’t say which ones) in their investigations. All they need is to impound an iPhone as evidence and they have access to everywhere you’ve been for who knows how long. That’s a huge amount of information and probably a boon to law enforcement agencies everywhere, but it also raises concerns about protecting Americans from invasions of their privacy.

At least two lawmakers, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota and Rep. Jay Inslee of Washington, are putting pressure on Apple to fully disclose all the details about the information, according to a story from Fierce Mobile Content. Here’s what Inslee had to say in a statement:

"I have been concerned that current law fails to ensure consumers are protected from privacy violations. Consumers are often left to learn of these breaches of privacy from hackers and security experts because companies fail to disclose what data they are collecting and for what purpose."

Franken has reportedly already sent a two-page letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs:

"There are numerous ways in which this information could be abused by criminals and bad actors," Franken writes. "Furthermore, there is no indication that this file is any different for underage iPhone or iPad users, meaning that the millions of children and teenagers who use iPhone or iPad devices also risk having their location collected and compromised."

Warden and Allan may not have really been the first to make this iPhone discovery, but they’ve sure kicked a hornets’ nest with their presentation. The echo of the ball bouncing in Apple’s court is becoming deafening, and it’s likely we’ll be hearing from Jobs about just how not-a-big-deal this location issue is very soon.