Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices have long been storing positions and timestamps in a hidden file on the user’s computer. That’s according to developers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, who reported their finding at the Where 2.0 conference Wednesday in Santa Clara, Calif.
Allan stumbled on the discovery while looking through iTunes’ backup files on his computer. Author of the book “Learning iPhone Programming” for O’Reilly Media, Allan came across “consolidated.db”, a backup file updated whenever a user syncs their iPhone or iPad with iTunes. Sequenced in a simple database, the file contained thousands of regularly gathered datapoints of the user’s latitude-longitude coordinates and timestamps, which for some phones have dated back to as much as a year.
While Allan and Warden suggest there is no immediate privacy concern from the data, they question why Apple is storing it, and why it is kept unencrypted and relatively accessible. In a blog post about the finding, they recommended iPhone and iPad users encrypt their backups through Apple’s media management software, iTunes.
The duo have also released “iPhone Tracker”, an application for the Mac that reads the backup file and projects a map visualization of the stored data. Trying out the application, I could see close to every location I’ve been to in the past year — which is particularly alarming.
“Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information on where you’ve been,” Warden told The Guardian. The company has yet to comment on the discovery.
PCWorld has an interesting theory: "Wondering why your iPhone and 3G-enabled iPad are storing your general location in an easily accessible database on your PC? It's simple. Apple uses this information to build a cell tower and Wi-Fi access point location database."
In the video below, the pair discuss the finding and its implications.