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So, if your iPhone is spying on you, who benefits?

Reports that iPhones and Android phones track the owners' movements have revived privacy concerns. The list of who wants the data – from police to marketers – is potentially a long one.

By Staff writer / April 22, 2011

Reports that Apple and Google are collecting location data from iPhones and Android phones have raised privacy concerns.

Truth Leem/Reuters

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News that certain mobile phone manufacturers have embedded technology in their devices that tracks owners' movements has raised alarms among privacy rights advocates even though it has been somewhat of an open secret since last year.

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The controversy flared up this week when technology bloggers started commenting on a report by two security technology researchers that was presented at a conference in Santa Clara, Calif.

Alasdair Allan, a senior research fellow at the University of Exeter, and Pete Warden, founder of Data Science Toolkit, an open-source software website, reported that starting a year ago, when Apple updated its mobile operating system, the iPhone and the 3G version of the iPad started storing user location data.

The data are collected whenever the device connects with cell-phone towers or Wi-Fi networks. The collected data becomes vulnerable to hackers if the device is later synced to a computer.

“We’re not sure why Apple is gathering this data, but it's clearly intentional,” Mr. Allan and Mr. Warden wrote on their website.

Apple has not yet commented publicly on the issue. A call to an Apple spokesperson representing the company’s iPhone division was not returned at press time.

Android reportedly collecting data, too

It is also becoming clear that concern over the tracking software is not limited to Apple devices. On Friday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Google has also been collecting location data from users of its Android OS system, although on a more limited basis than Apple.

Speculation varies about why the manufacturers are allowing their devices to log the users’ physical coordinates. One theory is that advertisers would benefit from knowing what locations users frequent most and in what pattern, in order to target marketing messages their way.

Many companies already offer training to computer forensic experts at law enforcement agencies on extracting location data from mobile devices and software, to help them track suspects in criminal cases.

One such company, Micro Systemation, located in Solna, Sweden, posted on its website Thursday that “the findings … will come as a surprise to most iPhone users, as their devices do not give any visual indication that such data is being recorded. But they are no surprise to the developers here at [the company] who have been recovering this data … for some considerable time.”

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