Coverage of the iPhone tracking "feature" has ranged from concern to outrage. "I don't know about you, but the fact that this feature exists on an iPhone is a deal-killer," wrote PCMag Columnist John Dvorak, shortly after news broke. Editor Dan Costa drew a softer line, writing, "Apple may not be actively tracking you, but it did turn your phone into a tracking device without telling you."
I'm not about to give Apple a pass on disclosure or execution. Who combs through an Apple privacy statement when the latest iOS software awaits? And, to "collect" and "share" user data is one thing; to retain it in an unprotected file is quite another.
However, I think it's important that, with a few days' hindsight, we move beyond the bombast, pin down the facts, and see what's actually there. To do this, I've taken a close look at what's at risk and, in empirical spirit, borrowed fellow PCMag software analyst Jeff Wilson's iPhone 3GS to see what I could learn of the man and the travels using Pete Warden's iPhoneTracker app.
A pair of mobile forensic researchers who independently identified a location tracking system on the iPhone 4 several months before it was publicized earlier this week say that law enforcement agencies are currently using data from a hidden iOS file called "consolidated.db" in criminal investigations.
Evidence from the location tracking database stored on iPhones "has been used in actual criminal investigations and yes, it's led to convictions," said Alex Levinson, a Rochester Institute of Technology researcher and technical lead for iOS forensics consultant Katana Forensics.
But Levinson and Christopher Vance, a Marshall University digital forensics specialist, also contend that Apple probably included the technology in its iOS operating system to deliver location-based services like iAds rather than to create dossiers on the whereabouts of iPhone users.
A great deal of buzz has surrounded a Wednesday O'Reilly Radar blog post by researchers Pete Warden and Alasdair Allan that highlighted a hidden file on iOS devices like the iPhone and iPad which includes latitude-longitude coordinates and a timestamp to track where such devices have been geographically and when.
But Warden and Allan apparently weren't the first to discover the file.