Apple releases iOS 4.3.3. to address location tracking ‘bug’

by Phil Hornshaw

In response to the growing pressure from the media, Congress and customers, Apple has released an update to its iOS operating system for the iPhone and iPad that addresses a location tracking feature the company has referred to as a bug.

The problem was a cache of location information that was stored among the iPhone’s root files in iOS 4.3, which logged location information every time the phone received a GPS update. The information was stored in the folder and never deleted, and after two researchers brought to light the location of the file (it was previously known to others but not widely reported), it became apparent that Apple’s devices were gathering a whole lot of location information about their users, without disclosing what for which it was being used.

The new update makes a few changes to that data cache, although it doesn’t eliminate it entirely: first, it “reduces the size” of the file, presumably causing it to store less information for a shorter time -- before, the cache was never emptied and grew indefinitely. In fact, it stored location data for every movement the iPhone had ever made, resulting in as much as a year of location data.

Also changed in the update: The location data cache is no longer backed up in iTunes. This was another big privacy concern, as it spread all that intensely detailed data to other places that could be accessed by just about anyone, including law enforcement, as one forensic researcher revealed was already the case. He refused detail which agencies had been using iPhone location data in criminal investigations, however.

Finally, the update allows users to eliminate the location data cache altogether with one simple step: turning off location services. Popping open the Settings menu on an iPhone or iPad and disabling location services is as easy as sliding one control. Apple now says doing so eliminates any stored location data, though how permanent that elimination is remains tough to say.

According to a Los Angeles Times story, however, Apple still hasn’t really owned up to what it was doing (if anything at all) with the stored location data. It has offered various explanations, saying that the data has been used to track cell towers and other data used to make service better, and that bugs in the software have caused it to overreach and store more data than it should.

Whether the “Trackergate” situation was a bug or not isn’t really too clear (call me a conspiracy theorist, but that seems like a pretty huge bug to just, you know, miss), but either way, the pressure has gotten to Apple and it has made changes that should be a helpful in protecting user privacy. It may take some time, however, to find out just how helpful the changes actually are.