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Apple Tracking Saga: Deep Breath. Don’t Panic.

This much we know: if you have an iPad or iPhone, Apple probably knows where you’ve been. Think carefully. Have you anything to hide? Did you stop off at a bar when you were supposed to be finishing off work at the office? Did you stay home watching the game when you should have been taking the dog for a walk? Whatever the truth, take a deep breath.

Don’t panic.

Apple CEO Steve Jobs                  Getty Images

The story so far: two researchers Peter Warden and Alasdair Allan, discovered that Apple is storing customers’ movements in a secret file on iPads and iPhones, which may be transmitted back to HQ. Other comments have gotten less airtime. They also this: “Don’t panic…There’s no immediate harm that would seem to come from the availability of this data.”

Alas, telling people not to panic is the one sure way to ensure that they do. Warden and Allan also released a tracker application that displays iPhone and iPad users’ movements in a rather creepy-looking map. That didn’t exactly help. Nor does the mystery surrounding why Apple wants this data. The researchers themselves say: “It’s clearly intentional.” Creepy 2.0.

Of course, your iPhone or smart phone know where you are. When you log onto Google Maps application or any location-based service, your device will ask your permission to have your location, and you click “allow.” Or you don’t. The problem arises because most Apple customers weren’t aware that the data is being stored and they are not sure what is being done with it.

Al Franken, the Democratic Senator from Minnesota, and Ed Markey, the Democratic Congressman from Massachusetts, are two lawmakers who are very upset about Apple tracking iPhone and iPad customers and recording their movements in a secret file on their devices. Franken and Markey [pdf] have both fired off letters to Apple demanding answers.

In a rather blunt letter to Apple CEO Steve Jobs, Markey asks, “Is it accurate that Apple iPhone keeps track of where iPhone users go, saving the information to a file on the device that is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronized? If yes, did the company notify its users of this fact?”

Apple did not respond to requests for comment. But Apple.com states: “Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you.” The key word here: “anonymously.”

Franken paints a worst-case scenario: “Anyone who finds a lost or stolen iPhone or iPad or who has access to any computer used to sync one of these devices could easily download and map out a customer’s precise movements for months at a time…It is also entirely conceivable that malicious persons may create viruses to access this data from customers’ iPhones, iPads.”

Technology blogger Andy Ihnatko says the location files are just making a “rough location fix” based on nearby cell towers. “The database can’t reveal where you were, only that you were in a certain vicinity. Sometimes it’s miles and miles off. This implies that the log file’s purpose is to track the performance of the phone and the network, and not the movements of the user.”

Ihnatko doesn’t think there’s reason to worry. He says a third party couldn’t get access to this file without hacking into your iPhone or iPad. If Apple users are worried, he suggests clicking the “Encrypt iPhone Backup” option in iTunes. “Even with physical access to your desktop, a no-goodnik wouldn’t be able to access the log file,” he says.

Is that true? Or does this secret tracking file have the ability to follow you to the dry cleaners? Or, maybe, it could even be helpful in following the movements of your children so you know where they are in the case of an emergency or, perish the thought, if they go missing? In an era of CCTV cameras on almost every corner should we even care? Do you?

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    • Apple does also download any IPHONE user Photos and personal information stored on any apple device when you sync your apple device to your computer. Any information that is downloaded to the user computer is also transmitted and stored on Apple server without the user knowledge or consent, That includes any personal information and photos. That is an invation of the user privacy. private photos should not be downlaoded by Apple to their servers.

    • Apple also download any IPHONE user Photos and personal information stored on any apple device when you sync your apple device to your computer. Any information that is downloaded to the user computer is also transmitted and stored on Apple sever without the user knowledge or consent, That includes any personal information and photos. That is an invation of the user privacy. private photos should not be downlaoded by Apple to their servers.

    • This information has been known for over a year. The information was published in a book last December. Be suspicious why these two “security experts” are pushing this information at this time.

      Apple probably allows AT&T and now Verizon to use the data to help improve their cell tower locations by determining how many phones are in a tower’s vicinity when they have access problems or dropped calls.

      Users of any GPS device can be tracked by the companies who make the devices if they wanted to. Big Brother could also track you using your GPS device if they wanted to.

      Andy’s advice is the best: encrypt your iPhone backup to protect your home computer and don’t lose your phone. If you do, go to a computer and have the data on your phone erased as soon as possible. Getting the data off your phone doesn’t seem so easy that your average bad guy will be able to access it quickly and most wouldn’t know how anyway, or want to.

    • Technology that is able to track you – why is this news?

    • No, I don’t.

About Pay Dirt

  • Pay Dirt examines the millions of consumer decisions Americans make every day: What to buy, how much to pay, whether to rave or complain. Lead written by Quentin Fottrell, the blog examines these interactions, providing readers with news, insight and tips on shopping, spending, customer service, and companies that do right – and wrong – by their customers. Send items, questions and comments to quentin.fottrell@dowjones.com or tweet @SMPayDirt.

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