Apple Seems to Be Tracking iPhone 11 When Location Services Are Disabled, Report Finds [Updated]

Photo: Raul Marrero (Gizmodo)

Update 12/5/19: Apple has finally explained that this is part of an on-device process used for regulatory compliance and it promised a new tool to toggle the feature off in the future. You can read a full explanation of what’s going on right here.

Original story below.

Apple talks a very, very big privacy game, but a report has found the latest generation of iPhones may not give users as much control over their privacy as Apple would like them to believe.

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A report from Brian Krebs of KrebsOnSecurity found that despite onscreen language in its Location Services privacy policy that tells users they can “disable Location Services at any time,” Apple itself will continue seeking a user’s location even when all settings and applications have been manually turned off. Krebs discovered the issue on a new iPhone 11 Pro running the latest version of iOS 13, though other users have reported issues with always-on location tracking in Apple discussion forums.

In a video of the issue, Krebs manually disabled Maps, Siri, and individual System Services settings from the Location Services menu in Settings but enabled the setting to show the arrow-shaped Status Bar Icon and left the Location data tab enabled. Then, Krebs navigated to the Control Center and put the phone in Airplane Mode. When Krebs turned Airplane Mode off, the arrow icon appeared in the Status Bar despite there being no apps open beyond Settings.

Krebs said he was unable to dupe the issue on an iPhone 8 despite the phone running the most recent version of iOS 13 and speculated that the issue might be related to the iPhone 11’s hardware and support for WiFi 6.

Apple’s Privacy Policy, which was last updated in August ahead of the iPhone 11's launch, states that Apple “may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device.” But as Krebs noted, the on-device privacy policy in Location Services appears to insinuate that this data collection can be switched off entirely.

“You can disable Location Services at any time,” the privacy policy states. “You can also disable location-based system services by tapping on System Services and turning off each location-based system service.”

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Apple did not immediately return a request for comment about the issue. However after Krebs contacted the company about the issue, an Apple engineer said that the Location Services icon “appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings.” This would seem to indicate that users cannot, in fact, disable all location-based system services as Apple’s privacy policy appears to suggest.

That an Apple device may continue to track its user’s location even after they take measures to prevent it from doing so is particularly curious considering that performative grandstanding about privacy is the company’s whole schtick. The company boldly took out an entire billboard in Vegas during CES this year claiming—somewhat embarrassingly—that whatever “happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.” But if users don’t even have the power over their own iPhones to prevent the company from tracking their location, that would certainly appear not to be the case.

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While this issue would appear to counter Apple’s own privacy policy, it’s also not the first time the company has misled users about location tracking on its iPhones. Back in 2017, reports surfaced an issue involving the Control Center in iOS 11 where the iPhone did not actually disconnect from wifi and Bluetooth despite appearing to do so. And while Apple did cop to this on its support page, as Motherboard noted at the time, the issue was not evident to users. (Apple later introduced a fix.)

Perhaps this is a bug, though the Apple engineer’s comment to Krebs that the arrow icon shows up for system services that don’t have on and off switches in Settings doesn’t seem to indicate that’s the case. Or, maybe the evidently always-on location tracking is one small but significant reason Apple was uncharacteristically hushed on privacy during its iPhone 11 event this year.

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