Apple Filed Patent Application For Mobile Device Tracking

The recent discovery that Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices track their owner’s movements and store that information in a database shocked privacy advocates.  Apple quickly issued a statement denying the claims, explaining that they are tracking the device’s location, not the owner’s location.  Get that?  They’re not tracking you, they’re tracking something you always carry with you. Capiche?  (insert eyeroll here.)

Interestingly, Apple’s unconvincing statement admits that not only are their devices storing this location data locally for a year or more, but they’re also tying local WiFi networks to GPS data and sending that information back to Cupertino, where it’s later re-distributed to other iPhones as part of a “crowd-sourced database.”  None of these databases are encrypted, and all are readable by anyone with a modicum of tech savvy.

But here’s where it gets really interesting – back in September of 2009, Apple filed patent application #12/553,534 for “Location Histories for Location Aware Devices.” 

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The abstract provides:

A location aware mobile device can include a baseband processor for communicating with one or more communication networks, such as a cellular network or WiFi network. In some implementations, the baseband processor can collect network information (e.g., transmitter IDs) over time. Upon request by a user or application, the network information can be translated to estimated position coordinates (e.g., latitude, longitude, altitude) of the location aware device for display on a map view or for other purposes. A user or application can query the location history database with a timestamp or other query to retrieve  .

  (emphasis added)

In other words, Apple filed a patent on your phone keeping a log of where you go and when you go there, so that people and “apps” can later read that database and do, well, whatever they want to with that information.

The patent application cites a number of examples of how the data might be used, mentioning mundane uses like geo-tagging photos or generating (I’m sure very pretty) “location timeline” map. But I think Apple has their sights set a lot higher than just making pretty pictures.

[0020] In some implementations, location history database 116 can be correlated or related to other recorded data (e.g., related using a relational database). A data recording event occurs when data associated with an event is stored in location aware device 102 or on a network storage device (e.g., storage device 112). Some examples of recorded data include but are 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 phone call or instant message), data associated with a network event (e.g., a wired or wireless connection or disconnection with a network), etc.

Data associated with a financial transaction eh?  That could be anything from making sure you’re standing in front of the ATM you say you’re standing in front of (heightened bank transaction security) to telling retailers where you shop and when you shop there. So an app could, say, for instance, learn your name, peruse years of your location history, learn that you prefer Target to Wal-Mart, that you like shopping in the evenings, and transmit that data to any number of retailers.

So, is Apple lying when they dismiss the year-long data logs as “inadvertent?”  We can’t say for sure. Apple files thousands of patent applications each year, so the existence of this single patent application doesn’t necessarily say anything about their motives in the data collection incident.  It does show that they’ve at least thought about storing and using this information, however.  Time will tell how the existence of this patent factors into the upcoming congressional investigation.

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