The unedifying arrogance of PC journalists

Barry Collins is angry. Specifically, Barry is almost splenetic about what he sees as “Apple’s unedifying arrogance” in its response to the brouhaha over the database which your iPhone carries of locations.

In particular, Barry is vexed over what he sees as Apple’s slipperiness over whether it’s tracking your location, describing its explanation as…

“at best, a distortion of the truth. Yes, the iPhone may only be plotting the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and 3G cell towers, but that’s often more than enough to build up an accurate picture of your whereabouts.”

Sorry, Barry, but that’s utter nonsense.

If I say to you “I’m tracking the location of your phone” that suggests that I have data from your phone which shows your location, tied to you (or rather, to your phone).  But no information which is identifiable to you or your phone is transmitted to Apple. The data which is sent to Apple isn’t tied to anything identifiable about your particular phone.

As Apple puts it:

“This data is sent to Apple in an anonymous and encrypted form. Apple cannot identify the source of this data.”

Therefore, Apple is not tracking the location of your phone. It’s really as simple as that.

Remember, too, that the majority of the data in the consolidated.db database isn’t actually from your phone – it’s downloaded from Apple’s servers to your phone to speed up the process of any app which calls CoreLocation to determine where you are (which apps do with your explicit consent).

To quote Apple’s release:

“This data is not the iPhone’s location data—it is a subset (cache) of the crowd-sourced Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower database which is downloaded from Apple into the iPhone to assist the iPhone in rapidly and accurately calculating location.”

And there would be no way for someone who gets hold of your phone, jailbreaks it, and grabs than database to determine which was data originating from you, and which from Apple. So they best “location” they could get for you is effectively regional in scale: it can tell you roughly whereabouts you tend to go, but not in a way which lets you determine when exactly you went there or even if you’ve ever been to a particular place.

Of course, the real “unedifying arrogance” that Barry is bothered about isn’t really that of Apple towards consumers:

“And what’s all this about “very complex technical issues” that are “hard to communicate in a soundbite”? That’s a bit rich from the company that sprinkles soundbites like confetti in keynote speeches, describing its iPad as “magical” without revealing even the most basic of specs – like how much memory the tablet has.

Give us as much technical detail as you like, Apple: we can handle it. If we get stuck, we can even pick up the phone and ask your press officers, in the unlikely event they’ll ever answer a question.” [My emphasis]

Aha. There you have it. The reason that Barry – and plenty of other tech journalists – call Apple arrogant is mainly because Apple doesn’t jump when the journalists tell them. Apple, in fact, has a very bad reputation amongst tech journalists for being one of the least responsive companies out there. And that reputation is, I can tell you from years of experience, entirely justified.

But in this case, I think it’s not really relevant. Apple took its time, determined what the issue was and how they could fix it, and spoke clearly about what the problem was. There really isn’t much more to say about it.

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  • http://twitter.com/Westwit Wesley M.

    The problem is that studies have shown that even anonymized, that type of data is still enough identify a person, and also there is the case of iAds, which actually does collect more detailed levels of demographics plus the location. If you can connect the two databases, you have a good idea of which iPhone and perhaps which person it is. I assume neither database is connected, but given what is really not unreasonable distrust by the tech press of Apple, I do not think it is out of line for Barry Collins to be skeptical and angry.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    That doesn’t make sense, Wesley. If Apple doesn’t know which iPhone a piece of data in its database came from, it can’t link that data to you – period. And in an urban area, without that link, that data is fundamentally useless for advertising purposes.

    Incidentally, to opt out of data collection for iAd, just point your iPhone browser to http://oo.apple.com. Job done.

  • http://twitter.com/bazzacollins Barry Collins

    Ian,

    I’m obviously flabbergasted that you disagree with me:)

    There are numerous blogs on the web where people using the iPhoneTracker application have reported that it gives a fairly strong indication of their whereabouts. See http://zuhaiblog.com/2011/04/20/want-to-stalk-me-check-my-iphonetracker-history/ and http://danielkennett.org/blog/2011/04/iphonetracker-interesting-observations-of-my-data/. The latter, in particular, shows the route the chap took on a drive through Belgium and Germany.

    At no point, other than vague clauses in Apple’s 65-screen EULA, did anyone agree to this data being collected. To say that it doesn’t reveal the user’s whereabouts is utter tosh. To say that it doesn’t track the user’s movements is utter tosh.

    “Apple took its time, determined what the issue was and how they could fix it, and spoke clearly about what the problem was.” No, it didn’t. It patronised its users by claiming the issue was “complex”, delivered half-truths by trying to play down the accuracy of the data collected (the 100 mile claim on mobile masts is ludicrous), and hasn’t issued any instructions to its customers about how they can remove or delete this data.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Of course it’s going to give an indication of your whereabouts: the data downloaded into that DB is going to be mainly areas where you’ve actually been. But you can’t, from that DB, show which cells/WiFi nodes originate on that phone and which have been downloaded from Apple. This means it’s useless for actually showing that someone was in a given place either to any degree of accuracy, or at any given time.

    It doesn’t reveal your whereabouts, and it doesn’t track your movements. There’s no directional data stored at all, which means it literally can’t track your movements. And the dates/times stored won’t actually match where you’ve been, because – remember – not all that data comes from you. Try it yourself – open up a copy of someone’s consolidated.db (anyone’s – I’ll send you mine if you like!) and try and use date/time stamps to track a route.

    You can even see this in one of the posts you link to:

    “Figure 2, below, shows locations in Sweden I’ve never been anywhere near in my life”

    Of course it does – that data didn’t even come from his phone!

  • Anonymous

    Well done, Ian. Saint Augustine would be proud of such a marvelous application of apologetics.

    Ugh.

  • http://www.fairbrother.net Neil Fairbrother

    The location database on my iPhone shows loads of places where I’ve never been: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=211137962237786&set=a.151203571564559.23645.142811319070451&type=1&theater

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  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Exactly the point Neil – virtually everyone I’ve seen has spurious locations, because data is downloaded from Apple rather than just harvested from you.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk Ian Betteridge

    Care to point out where I’m wrong, Mark?

  • http://www.fairbrother.net Neil Fairbrother

    Indeedy. In any case, all the other cell phones do it too. Android, Windows7, all at it.

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