Just so you know, iOS 5 can keep track of your location like never before

by Phil Hornshaw

Remember all that location-tracking controversy that surrounded the iPhone with the release of iOS 4? Researchers announced that location data gathered from iOS devices’ GPS was being stored in an unprotected file rather than being deleted, and it touched off a whole bunch of discussion about privacy. It turned out that law enforcement officials had been using the data against suspects, and the story even spawned a few Senate inquiries into smartphone companies such as Apple and Google.

Well, according to a report from Gizmodo, the newly released iOS 5 has even more powerful tracking capabilities (although it’s important to note that you can opt out of them from the Settings menu, and you’re asked if you want them switched on when you first load iOS 5). It’s part of the software’s wealth of new, more powerful features, but it still might be considered a touch on the creepy side.

The improvements have been to Region Monitoring, a portion of the Core Location software used by apps to ping your location, allowing you to do things like check in to locations with Foursquare. Region Monitoring allows iOS 5 to give you location-specific reminders when you enter or leave an area, and while the feature was part of iOS 4, it wasn’t widely used. Apple has changed that by including APIs that make Region Monitoring more accessible to app developers, and it’s already leading to new kinds of improvements. Foursquare, for example, uses Region Monitoring to recommend nearby places to you, or even people, with its new Radar feature.

The new changes to Region Monitoring allow apps to access location data even when they’re not running, to create features like the ones at work in apps such as Find My Friends. That app lets you and your friends (who have to accept invites from each other) know where each other are more or less all the time. The app can be used to keep track of kids or to help coordinate meet-ups, but it keeps pinging your location without expressly letting you know.

Being a core feature of the phone, Region Monitoring is available passively to all the apps in your iPhone, should they need it, whenever you use an app that needs GPS capabilities. So connect to a Wi-Fi network or pull open the Maps app, and the GPS info you’re using to figure out where you are can be passed to other apps to help them work as well.

Core Location and Region Monitoring are pretty well tweaked to keep from draining your battery, Gizmodo says. As long as an app isn’t using it a lot, users likely won’t even notice the features are working. And of course, you can always switch them off. Region Monitoring will obviously lead to, and has already sparked, some cool new innovations in location-based apps.

But one wonders if all this heightened attention paid to where we are all the time is going to run afoul of the same politicians who were upset after the iOS 4 scandal. Likely it’ll be a lot less of a hullabaloo simply because users have the ability to opt-out. Even so, it’s worth paying attention to which apps are going to want to keep tabs on you, and why. Politicians might be satisfied now that Apple makes sure you know you’re turning location services on, but it’s still easy to forget that your smartphone pays attention to everywhere you go, now that location-based services are pushing for passive location tracking more than active check-ins.