April 21, 2011, 9:34 AM — 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, and the company admitted as much last year. At least that's my theory. Let's take a look.
The iTracking "Scandal"
On Wednesday, two researchers released an open source application called iPhone Tracker that pulls data from a hidden location history database contained in your iOS device's backup files saved on your PC. The app then plots this location information on a map allowing you to see your phone's travels over the past year. Your iOS devices have been building this location database since iOS 4 was released in June of last year, the researchers say.
The data appears to be based on cell tower triangulation and not GPS. This means the location information is not pinpoint accurate, but only shows your general location. The researchers also discovered in the database a list of Wi-Fi access points that your device has been in range of during the past year.
The researchers don't believe this data is leaving your custody, but I disagree. My best guess is that it is leaving your device as anonymized and encrypted information that Apple then uses to build its cell tower and Wi-Fi access point database.
What Apple Said
In July 2010, Apple sent a letter to Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) spelling out in detail what kind of location information Apple collects from device owners. Apple may "collect and transmit cell tower and Wi-Fi Access point information automatically [from your device]," the letter reads. "This information is batched and then encrypted and transmitted to Apple over a secure Wi-Fi Internet connection every twelve hours."