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Apple’s Secret Tracking Prompts Outrage, Lawsuit

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If you have a new iPhone or iPad, Apple is tracking you all the time, everywhere you go. As  first reported by Gizmodo.com, the iPhone and iPad secretly record their location automatically. The data is stored on the devices, and is easily accessed by anyone who finds it.

The news has created an uproar in privacy circles.

“I think it’s quite disturbing,” says Ondrej J. Krehel, information security officer at Credit.com’s sister company, Identity Theft 911. “It’s just another opportunity for marketers to collect information and to create in-depth profiles about individual people.”

Apple did not respond to requests for comment. The discovery prompted concern in Congress. Senator Al Frankn (D – Minn.) sent a letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs that included a number of pointed questions, including one that asked why consumers were not told about the geotracking feature beforehand, and what Apple plans to do with data it’s not collecting.

“The existence of this information—stored in an unencrypted format—raises serious concerns,” Franken said in his letter. “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.”

[Related article: Your Smarter Smartphone]

The revelation led to almost immediate legal action. Within days of Gizmodo’s story, privacy attorneys Scott Kambel and Majed Nachawati added the iPhone and iPad geotracking function to a lawsuit they’d already filed against Apple in December, Nachawati said Monday. That suit is a class action regarding the company’s use of downloaded apps to track individuals’ mobile devices.

“A user has the right to know who’s receiving their data and what the company is doing with it,” Nachawati says. “And the reality is there’s not enough transparency about what companies are doing to gather and use this information.”

Apple’s geotracking data is specific and highly accurate, Gizmodo reporter Sam Bindle found. It tracked his movements in Manhattan down to the block. Using a simple data transfer, Bindle was able to take the location information directly from his phone and lay it over a map, which tracked his movements from place to place over an entire month.

Independent researchers haven’t found a way to switch the geotracking function off. Apple hasn’t announced why it’s gathering and storing all this data, or how it may eventually use it. Krehel imagines it could be useful to behavioral marketers, who could use location information to determine commuters’ daily routines and where they shop, and use that data to serve them highly targeted ads.

But Apple’s silence about the geotracking issue leaves consumers in a difficult position, Krehel says.

“The consumer should ask for more transparency,” says Krehel. “Consumers should know what data is being collected about them, how it’s being collected, and how its being used.”

[Related article: Digital Footprints: The Do Not Track proposal]

Image: Rob Pongsajapan, via Flickr

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