May 11, 2011, 11:03 AM — The U.S. Senate Judiciary subcommittee hearing chaired by Al Franken Tuesday started out as an investigation into Apple's various contradictory statements about tracking the location of iPhone users.
It turned into a broader condemnation of the privacy invading potential of both smartphones and location services, which drive many of the most popular smartphone applications for both business and consumer users.
After vowing that Apple doesn't track users, CEO Steve Jobs eventually allowed as how iPhones do track the location of cell towers and WiFi hotspots – which all cell phones have to do in order to communicate with their networks.
Apple software technology VP Guy “Bud” Tribble told Franken's Privacy, Technology and the Law Subcommittee that Apple anonymizes all user-location data, and uses it only to help improve service to mobile devices.
Given that WSJ reporters were able to read a log listing the minute-by-minute locations of the phone – not the cell towers with which it communicated – and Apple's leaked plans to offer better geographic and apps that give mapped retrospectives of where a user has travelled, Tribble's point seems weak.
It's almost irrelevant, actually.
All cell phones have to track their own physical location in relation to the nearest cell tower or WiFi hotspot, identify and authenticate themselves to the network – usually including the number that provides a unique identifier for that particular device to the network to which it connects.
If the phone is configured to not store those exchanges, it's possible there would be no potentially incriminating record of the owner's location, at least on the phone.
The network keeps track, however. Carrier networks have to be able to identify each individual device in order to route calls or Internet traffic correctly.
There's nothing surprising about that to anyone who's ever hooked up a new device to a network and found it couldn't see anything. Every connected device has to announce itself to something in order to be found. Whatever tracking device is involved, on LAN, WAN or cell networks, must keep a record of where that individual device is within the network, or the device won't stay connected.
That's not "anonymized" data in the way Jobs and Tribble imply. It's very specific, and it has to be.