Apple Patent Reveals Extensive Stalking Plans

The spying iPhone is no accident. A recent Apple patent application reveals that the location-tracking dossiers accumulated in iPhones are to be used in apps from Apple and any number of other companies.

Ronald Huang, an Apple senior engineering manager, filed patent application 12/553,554 last month, "Location histories for location aware devices," which explains how Apple can amass and use location data in the very ways Apple critics fear. The patent application, for example, envisions a searchable map plotting the owner's location history; tying location to financial transactions; transmitting location data over the internet to remote servers; and many other uses.

Apple has been enmeshed in controversy since computer researchers disclosed last month that the iPhone stores indefinitely data about its whereabouts gleaned from cell phone towers and wifi access points. The data collection started with the release of iOS 4 last June. The iPhone puts the location data in an easily read file called "consolidated.db," which is apparently never pruned for old entries.

Privacy advocates, politicians and the press have loudly raised concerns about how this extensive history of personal movements is going to be used. Senator Al Franken and Rep. Ed Markey, for example, both wrote letters to Apple demanding to know why the location dossiers are being created, and today the Illinois attorney general followed suit. The information is also collected even if the iPhone's "location services" preference is set to "off," the Wall Street Journal reported this morning.

Apple hasn't officially commented on why iPhones are compiling such a long history of information on their owners movements. But it does appear to be trying to quell the controversy. Apple CEO Steve Jobs recently sent an email to a concerned customer, writing, "We don't track anyone. The info circulating around is false." Apple has also done nothing to dispute a widely read report that a software bug is the likely reason so much data has been compiled on iPhones. And someone or something prompted the Journal to write an article earlier this month saying that Google's competing Android phones engage in similar behavior.

Apple Patent Reveals Extensive Stalking Plans

But Apple's patent application makes it seem highly unlikely the location gathering is due to a bug. Indeed, the company outlines big plans for the troves of data it has quietly created. Apple includes an illustration of a mapping app called simply "Location History" which very much resembles the "iPhone Tracker" application expressly designed to raise alarm bells about all the data being collected (see figure 3A and 3B in the PDF embedded below, page 4-5). The patent also spells out how the location database could be "correlated or related" to other personal information, including "but not limited to: Data associated with a picture taking event, data associated with a financial transaction, sensor output data, data associated with a communication event (e.g. receipt of a phone call or instant message), data associated with a network event.... etc." (sections 0020 and 0021, on page 9 in the PDF below).

Apple also says several time that the collected data will be transmitted to remote servers, including in section 0018, which discusses a "remote reference database," and section 0035, which discusses sharing location data with other wireless devices "or with a remote service (e.g., navigation services)." Apple has said before that such data is only shared with express user consent, although it clearly caught customers by surprise with the compilation of the iPhone location database.

Apple Patent Reveals Extensive Stalking Plans

The patent makes it clear that Apple has been planning an extensive, rather than a very limited, location database. One section, 0032, even spells out using data compression to reduce the amount of storage needed to store repeated visits to the same location. Elsewhere in the patent application, for example in section 0004, Apple describes the possibility of managing the size and "freshness" of the database by pruning older entries. This is listed as a possibility "in some implementations" but no hard, specific cap on data collection is ever suggested.

Clearly, Apple sees big potential in exploiting the iPhone's ability to record our every move. Now it just needs to explain to its users how far this practice will be taken, and how much consent it will seek before building up movement dossiers and before using them in its own software. Its track record on disclosure thus far is not encouraging.


[Photos of Jobs via Getty Images]