back to article No, iPhone location tracking isn't harmless and here's why

It didn't take long for the blogosphere to pooh pooh research presented on Wednesday that detailed a file in Apple iPhones and iPads unknown to the vast majority of its users that stored a long list of their time-stamped locations, sometimes with alarming detail. On Thursday, a forensics expert who sells software to law …


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  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    So, the reason that it is not harmless is that 'cops' are already tapping this data?

    The real answer for this is....

    .... you shouldn't be worried unless you have something to hide. The Police are not going to routinely get every single person's data and decided if they are where they claimed to be.

    On the opposite hand this can also be a saviour for someone that is blamed for something and their only alibi happens to be that they were in such a place a such time but didn't have anyone to corroborate the story. Then the data from their iphone is the perfect witness because it cannot tell a lie, it was where it reported it was according to GPS data.

    Why the blazes are people getting so paranoid these days about data collection. So what, it is now done covertly.

    This same information can also be used by the Telco's to decide where extra towers need to be set up to improve service.

    There are far more positives that there are negatives that can arise from this collection of data and I will not get trapped in this paranoia.

    1. Phil 54

      Las Vegas

      Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, as you can clearly see from the Iphone log, the accused WAS indeed present in Las Vegas the night of the murder, despite his farcical protestations that he has never been to Las Vegas.

      1. Eponymous Howard


        "Ladies and gentleman of the jury, you can clearly see I was 1,000 miles away from Vegas, despite the police's attempts to stitch me up"

      2. Andrew Moore Silver badge


        the data only tracks where the iPhone was- not the owner. So if you are off to commit a crime, leave your iPhone at home. Voila! Instant alibi.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      So if you want an alibi..

      leave your phone somewhere or with another person

      1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

        Re: Alibi

        Or... given that it's now open knowledge, it might no more be admissible as evidence.

        Consider the phone might have not been with the accused...

        Or... the file might have been tampered with. Not having an iphone, I'm not exactly sure how this may be done, but I expect you would be able to do it with a rooted one easy. An unrooted one, I don't know.

        Now, I don't go anywhere exciting at all, to be honest, and as stated before I do believe the telco triangulating you could be useful on some occasions (consider this, storage is cheap, if they wanted to watch a certain mobile, I expect they really could!) but other people knowing besides the telco knowing as well, and such a complete log.... Some options should be available.

        If you don't mind not being contacted but still want to carry your phone with you, and for some period, *just* would not like to be tracked, remove its battery... Oh you can't. Well, then, turn it off... No? Still don't trust it?

        Faraday cage then.

        Wrap it up in aluminium foil. At least twice to be sure of no breaches.

        I've tried it with Android phones and a commercial GPS device just today in fact, it *appears* to work. I can't say the same about iPhones empirically yet but I shall try that the first opportunity, I can.

        Not because I am advocating anything illegal by the way. I just believe we should have the option of privacy.

        With all that I've said now, can a phone be used seriously as incriminating evidence?

        Crap, there's no tin foil hat icon...

        1. dssf

          Remove the battery? Might do no good.

          If the phone location is boosted by hidden signal amplifiers...

          There's also rumor/speculation that the mic and camera can be remotely commanded on without the phone LEDs, vibrator, or screen revealing the act.

          I heard there is a second battery. Hidden. Just in case a wanted phone has its battery removed. Or, to preserve the data while the main battery is removed.

          For fun, try watching "Overheard". It was made several YEARS ago, and if the tech parts of the film can be found to be true in 2009-ish, then... these arguments of the iPhone are years late outside of Asia...

          ((The film was released theatrically in Hong Kong on 30 July 2009.))

          Some of these links may contain plot spoilers:



          Fairly spoiling:

          "Their behavior is part and parcel of the film's overview of a society where those with money or power are above the law, even its enforcers. The story ends not once, but twice, with triple twists, evoking an ambivalent sense of devastation and catharsis.

          Wong amuses with his hammy turn as the nefarious tycoon whose hypocritical speeches parody fatuous business lingo."


          "Due to the film's great success, the sequel "Overheard 2" will begin production and tentatively release in 2011"

          I bet this will resonate well with the rumbling over iPhone and Android phone data breaches. I bet someone could make a film about Google willy-nill allowing virtually any old software producer to hack people's phones, but then to protect Google, an evil exec pays contract killers to knock off whistleblowers as a favor to police and government authorities. Might not a new theme, but given the irritation it could possibly be retuned to police abuse. (I may pen a script myself...)


          Several Parts of the film can be eye-watering to shockingly, violently stunning.

          1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

            "Remove the battery? Might do no good"

            Like I said earlier.

            Faraday cage.

            My android phone definitely disconnects. Naturally as you would expect so does my GPS device.

            I am not sure about iPhones though because from memory I believe the metal sidey bit of the phone is the antenna. Most people usually have some sort of bumper or case though so maybe the aluminium foil will still work. Or else one could still insulate the metal bit, and then wrap aluminium round the phone.

            I will have to wait till I find one of my mates with an iPhone (who is willing) to test this out though.

            Or just don't carry the phone around.

            1. sT0rNG b4R3 duRiD

              Faraday Cage

              Ok, just tested this with a mate's iPhone with bumpers. From full signal bars, wrapped in foil, it appears to drop off the telco network - it becomes unreachable to calls.

              Now, I could not test definitively to see if it dropped off a wifi network from a router's point of view at the time, and there is no way I can tell if it definitely drops off a telco's from their point of view...

              But I have to say the theory behind it is reasonably sound.

              Open to the floor...

          2. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

            @dssf Re: Remove the battery? Might do no good.

            You remove the battery, you've removed the power source to your phone so that it is inert. Any capacitor in your phone would have lasted less than a second so no battery, your phone is a brick.

            So without a power source there is no way to access the phone remotely or even dump the data via a wireless manner. (If your phone does use USB to recharge the phone, it may be possible to power the phone sans battery.

            Of course you may not be able to remove the battery. Newer phones don't let you the consumer remove the batteries...

            So please stick to facts and not fiction.

            1. Zippy the Pinhead

              @ Ian

              "Of course you may not be able to remove the battery. Newer phones don't let you the consumer remove the batteries..."

              No IPHONES don't let you remove the battery. All the others do.

      2. Keith T

        Or buy a different brand phone

        But the point is, Apple is still keeping this secret claiming it doesn't happen.

    3. SuccessCase

      Oh dear,

      You need an education. Ordinarily i would never say something that might be perceived as so arrogant or rude as that but there, I've said it. You really, really should change your opinion. I humbly suggest you type the words "you've got nothing to fear if you've got nothing to hide" in google and read a few of the results that show up. You will find article after article by intelligent thinking people from every walk of life and every polotic pointing out why the view you hold is shallow and thoughtless. It's only really possible to hold the opinion you do if you have no appreciation of how, historically, advanced civilized and democratic countries have been transformed into totalitarian regimes, and how this could only be done precisely because the nascent regimes in question were able to rely on people holding the opinion you hold. Really, do what I suggest, it's importent for all our sakes that people like you swot up on history and gain some understanding of how democracy is always a delicate flower we should never take for granted. Lastly it's ironic that you have said what you have said and yet feel (in my book quite legitimately) that you would prefer to make your post anonymously. Think about it, different context i know, but as minor as the fear of revealing your identity you have may be, your action directly contradicts your argument.

      1. Christopher Rogers


        Important not importent.

      2. mark 63 Silver badge
        Thumb Up

        re "you've got nothing to fear if you've got nothing to hide"

        finally an articulate answer as to why thats a bad thing.

        now i'm off to see if those google results are really there....

      3. Ere the grist

        ... feel free to educate me

        I was hoping to find at least a nugget of a reason why I should be significantly concerned about this issue but the invitation to swot up on the facts doesn't really do it for me. Is there nothing that could be said in one or two sentences that would persuade me otherwise? I'm as paranoid as the next guy, so it shouldn't be too hard to get me worried. That said, the Register article itself fails to deliver on the promise of its title.

        For those who are perturbed by this story, I hope the manufacturers of competing smartphones take the opportunity to tell us how their phones DON'T record locational data in this way. That would help.

    4. DF118

      Oh look...

      It's the nothing-to-hide "argument".

      I've got plenty to hide thank you very much, and so do you.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        RE:Oh Look

        We all knew it was coming, this must be a new record.

      2. Keith T

        If not to hide from the lawful, to hide from the lawless

        If not to hide from the lawful, to hide from the lawless

    5. Allan George Dyer Silver badge

      Transparency and trust

      So a handheld device that logs it's location be unknown means and dubious accuracy is going to become the "perfect witness"?

      What if:

      i) the suspect leaves their phone at the alibi location before travelling to the crime scene

      ii) the article states the phone sometimes reports a wrong location: why? when? can it be manipulated? what if there's a crime at that location?

      iii) the log file be manipulated?

      If we don't know how it works and how it can go wrong, how can we challenge it? Look at the cases of phantom ATM withdrawals.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

        1. Vic

          Conviction isn't the only thing to worry about...

          > There is no way you'd get a conviction based on this.

          You might be right - but that doesn't mean you wouldn't get dragged through the courts anyway.

          A few weeks ago, a neighbour of mine was called up for jury service, and ended up trying a burglary case.

          The evidence presented by the CPS boiled down to geolocation info obtained from his phone. There was nothing to show he'd ever been in the same room as the people who actually committed the burglary, but he was being charged with conspiracy.

          I don't know the outcome of the trial - my neighbour couldn't say much for obvious reasons, and I'm not sufficiently interested to follow it up anyway. But his frustration was that he had to try a case where the only evidence appeared to be that some guy's phone had been within a few hundred yards of some Bad Guys(tm).

          The CPS are a bunch of cocks. It would be idiotic to imagine that they won't abuse this info. Unless you're BT, of course, in which case everything is permitted[1].


          [1] (c) Jim Steinman :-)

      2. Stupidscript
        Thumb Down

        Silliness Until Incarceration

        Yeah ... cute comment.

        What if ... the cops confiscate your phone during a traffic stop (because "reasonable suspicion" is something you have to prove in court, not on the street), read its contents, and throw you in jail? Keep in mind that they don't need to tell you anything about why you are being thrown in jail ... at least, not anything that makes sense.

        Oh, that's right ... since the data is inaccurate, that would never happen. Laughs all around.

        All cops know this, and when they impound your phone, then your body, I guess it's okay, because the data's inaccurate.

        And, anyway, what's a night or three in jail? Pfft. Nobody would be inconvenienced by that, would they?

        I mean, the data's inaccurate, so any police experience involving said data would be, at most, a minor inconvenience.

        Certainly you would understand that, because the data is inaccurate, they couldn't KEEP you in jail, right? I mean, they can only keep you there for, at most, 72 hours, right? Who cares about that? Hardly an inconvenience, at all!

        "But, officer ... the data's inaccurate!"

        Clearly not a problem for the poor sod being hauled off the jail and having to spend several thousand dollars on attorneys and wasted time trying to get the hell out of jail and get their phone back.

        There is no such thing as a (your words) "perfect witness" ... but there are plenty of reasons to haul your butt into jail and let you sort it out at your own expense.

        This database includes a proven tool for doing just that.

        Laughs all around.

    6. Anonymous Coward

      daily mail reader?

      I suspect you have never been arrested.

      If they arrest you they think you have done it. If your mobile data shows you didn't they will try not to disclose it.

      That's how UK law enforcement works, once they arrest they only want the material to convict you.

      1. Adam 52 Silver badge


        That's not really fair on the police/CPS. Yes, there is a tendency to looks for evidence to convict the accused, but any evidence that is found during the investigation is disclosed. Usually.

    7. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      @Troll McTrollson

      "This same information can also be used by the Telco's to decide where extra towers need to be set up to improve service."

      Dear customer,

      Could you tell us how much our towers have been used please? We understand you may have information about that which we don't.


    8. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      "you shouldn't be worried unless you have something to hide. "

      I would say you would be correct if everyone connected with your information and it's use has access to all relevant facts, is 100% honest, fully competent, aware of all the possible ramifications and is completely impartial.

      This includes anyone approached with regard to your information.

      Unless you can guarantee all of the above then you could have a lot to be worried about.

    9. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Photographers will tell you

      If you think you have nothing to hide - you haven't seen how the plod use the anti-terrorist laws

    10. Black Betty

      Then why hide your name, if .... have nothing to hide?

      There are any number of people, as mentioned in the article, who have a perfectly legitimate reason for others not to know where they are (even at the level of granularity the data is said to have).

      Despite your obvious belief that an iPhone is a permanently grafted appendage, they may in fact on occasion travel entirely independently of their owner. It has inherrently far, far less believability as an alibi machine than it would as a silent accuser.

      People are legitimately paranoid about unauthourised and secret data collection, because of the many ways it can be and is used against them. From using targeted advertising to get folk to overspend by 25% or so, to complete identity theft.

      1. Annihilator

        @Black Betty

        "Then why hide your name, if have nothing to hide?"

        Yes my irony-o-meter exploded when I realised the troll in the first post had posted a/c :-)

    11. Sam Therapy


      So why are there so many innocent people still on the UK police forces' databases? Your post is unbelievably stupid.

    12. Asgard

      On no, the "Nothing to hide" argument ... again.

      AC, "Why the blazes are people getting so paranoid these days about data collection." ... "you shouldn't be worried unless you have something to hide"

      Its getting very tiresome trying to explain to people like you, why you are wrong, when the fact is, the only way you can still remain so completely ignorant of history, is that you must be refusing to read up on why you are wrong. Which means any attempt to tell you why you are wrong will also be ignored by you. It means by definition your core error is that you are closed minded and it is your closed mindedness that is blinding you from learning about history.

      So until you stop being so closed minded, you will continue to fail to learn why you are wrong about the dangers of the state having too much information on the people. Location based information like iPhones are collecting are ideally suited to being abused by the state. (As are contact lists which can be got from phone & email contact lists, also found on phones). (For example look at how some states are trying to silence political protesters. Their location from their phone will give them away and their contact list will allow the corrupt states to abuse their friends and families in the same why they are abusing the protesters. Governments all around the world would love to abuse this kind of information to block and make life harder for political protesters).

      Here's a hint, history shows time and time again how people in authority have and continue to this day to abuse their positions of power, for their own gain. The more information they have, the more power they have. To be ignorant of that, is to be profoundly ignorant of so much history. Plus history shows it is the ignorant but otherwise good people just like you who are part of the problem, because your kind allow the people in authority to get away with so much more, simply because your kind are ignorant of how much lying and manipulation the people in authority use to blind people just like you from the truth of what they are really doing.

      This same pattern is being played out around the world right now, as it has been throughout history. People in some countries are dying right now as they attempt to fight against the abuses of power of their people in power. Please note however that the danger with the people in power isn't simply that people die because of them. There are many more ways the people in power make everyone else suffer endlessly because of the corrupt manipulative undermining ways of the people in authority.

      History shows this, but you have to be willing to learn to learn!

      So please finally wake up from your closed dream world and finally learn!

    13. A J Stiles

      All very well, but .....

      You might be a law-abiding model citizen now. But what if something harmless that you already do gets banned by a future government?

      Don't tell me you're going to lie down like a good little martyr.

    14. Anonymous Coward
      Thumb Down

      How Naive

      If you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear chesnut is as pathetic as won't someone think of the children....

      Perhaps we should abandon the secret ballot at elections? After all what are you hiding when you vote? And no the government won't hold it against you when you vote for the opposition (promise) why what do you have to hide???

      Privacy and the right to privacy is the bed rock of democracy otherwise we should ask the storm troopers in and have the police state you are so welcoming of.

      The real debate is why are governements and the legislature are still allowing private companies to create new and wonderful ways to profile, track and capture private data all in search of the advertising dollar completely unchecked?

      There are no controls and no agreed approved frameworks. It is a wild west country where what you can get away with works.

      1. Zippy the Pinhead

        @ How Niave

        "The real debate is why are governements and the legislature are still allowing private companies to create new and wonderful ways to profile, track and capture private data all in search of the advertising dollar completely unchecked?"

        Is that something that needs to be legislated though? I would say no keep govt out of business as much as possible.. because as soon as they can legislate it then they will want to control it!

        I would rather vote with my wallet then get the government involved.

    15. Keith T

      You must live a pretty bland life

      You must live a pretty bland life if you never have anything to hide from anyone.

      Consider all the people who might one day wish to harm you: competitors, your spouse, your employer, kidnappers, clients, rivals.

      Consider that knowing your innocent movements could allow rivals and competitors to gain an advantage over you.

      Consider if you work with battered women or battered children, or semi-covert government departments, or if you work in a high tech or highly competitive industry.

      1. Zippy the Pinhead

        @ Keith T

        "You must live a pretty bland life if you never have anything to hide from anyone."

        Everyone has something to hide.. Social Security Numbers, Credit Info.. you don't have to be breaking any laws to not want your personal info in someone else's hands. You don't have to keep secrets because you are breaking the law.

        And I highly object to the police accessing any electronic devices without search warrants in place before the search begins.

    16. Anonymous Coward

      Do you have curtains?

      Surely if you've got nothing to hide then you won't mind taking all your curtains down so anybody can look in any time they want?

      (Really old point, but one worth repeating)

      You might also wish to consider the fact that anyone who steals your phone now also knows where you live and where you work. They also know that you've got a fair bit of money and like gadgets (you had an iDevice, after all). Therefore your home and your workplace are locations worthy of criminal attention.

      Quote: "Then the data from their iphone is the perfect witness because it cannot tell a lie, it was where it reported it was according to GPS data." - Now that's just silly.

      Ever heard of bugs? Computers can and do make mistakes, especially where 'fuzzy' data sources are concerned.

      Even if this data really was 100% accurate, it's utterly useless as a 'witness' because it's a portable object! You can easily leave it somewhere, or someone can take it from you.

      So it's trivial for the phone to claim that it actually was at the scene of a crime when you weren't, and vice-versa.

    17. John Smith 19 Gold badge


      ".... you shouldn't be worried unless you have something to hide. "

      The real answer to this is “If you give me six lines written by the hand of the most honest of men, I will find something in them which will hang him” Cardinal Richelieu

      Or more simply

      No need to ask. No need to know.

      If you don't feel anyone's location is no ones business but their own perhaps you'd like to give us yours? Or just you name would be a start.

    18. sisk Silver badge

      Nothing to fear?

      And that would be why any competant lawyer (or even an honest cop) will tell you not to say a word to the cops without an attorney present no matter what, right?

      Here's a clue: The right to not incriminate yourself is there to protect the innocent, not the guilty. There's a reason it's neccessary.

    19. heyrick Silver badge

      I have nothing to fear, and nothing to hide...

      But you can kindly piss off out of my life. I share what I'm willing to share, and don't share the rest.

      Your pathetic little "nothing to worry about" argument only holds water if you're willing to leave your front door open. After all, if you really have nothing to hide, you'll not mind complete strangers taking a look...

    20. John Sturdy

      Please demonstrate that you have nothing to hide

      Could you give us some real assurance that you have nothing to hide, and are not just bluffing? Please tell us your name and salary, post your past three months' bank statements, the confirmation emails from any online purchases you have made in the past year, your expenses claims to your employer, your medical records, and the location file from your iPhone, in reply to this post.

      What, that's private information? But if you have nothing to hide...

      1. Wize

        Even if you did no wrong...

        ...what if you were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.

        Take an example three identical murders in three towns. They pull all the records and find you, who was there perfectly innocently on buisness. You'd be locked up in no time.

        If it was a set of bomb factories instead, you might never see the light of day.

        But you have nothing to hide...

    21. Naughtyhorse
      Thumb Down

      not so sure...

      All the data really says is that that is roughly where the phone was (using tower locations not gps - rtfa), if you are in the frame for any other good reasons (hence the need for an alibi) then i'd say you were still up shit creek

    22. Anonymous Coward

      @AC Friday 22nd April 2011 04:06 GMT

      If you have nothing to hide, why did you post as an Anonymous Coward. I'm an anonymous coward because I understand I do have something to hide.

      If you have nothing to hide, please post on this forum or somewhere else nice and public all your credit card numbers, bank account details, etc.

      Please set up a web-cam in your own home to publish your own activities at home. Don't worry, you have nothing to hide, so you have nothing to fear.

    23. Andy Towler

      "you shouldn't be worried unless you have something to hide..."

      Obvious troll is obvious.

    24. DF118

      Re: Mmmmm.....

      That has to be a record for most downvoted post ever, especially if you count the four who must have accidentally missed the downvote button.

    25. Maurice Shakeshaft
      Big Brother

      Sad, very sad! and dangerous as well.

      Nothing more to be said, really.

      Big Brother Icon because they can, more easily now with this attitude.

  2. Suburban Inmate
    Big Brother

    I wonder

    Is the reported location of the cell towers inaccurate *but* compensatable if you you (Apple, operators, porkers) are aware of the inaccuracy?

    1. Ian Michael Gumby Silver badge

      Yo! Suburban Inmate...

      The position of the cell towers are pretty exact.

      First they are at a fixed location and do not move.

      Second when setting up a base station you can get the GPS fix via much more accurate kit than you normally buy. Surveyor kit can be made to be as accurate as 3cm if you take up the time to set up a ground station for 48-72 hours and or tie in to a radio signal from a known location. (accuracy would then depend on how accurate of a clock you have in your instrument.)

      (Use GPS to get a rough position, the use the clock signal from a known location to get a more accurate position based on relative clock timing signals. Over time you can get the mean average position....)


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