Tests Reveal iPhone Continues to Track Users When Location Services Are Off

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No matter how harmless this whole iPhone tracking feature may be, some people still aren’t happy about it. While many of us have brushed it off and chosen to ignore what seems like something blown way out of proportion, others have decided to take things a little more seriously.

Now dubbed ‘Locationgate’, the issue has been the subject of class-action lawsuits and government investigations. But surely if users are really concerned about their iPhone tracking their every move, they can just turn location services off, right? Wrong.

The Wall Street Journal has revealed that even with location services disabled on the iPhone, the device continues to collect and store users’ location data with the help of cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots. This isn’t a dirty little secret, however; this is well within the rights of every cell phone maker. But what’s interesting, is that Apple seems to lie about it.

In its iPhone Terms of Service, Apple states:

By using any location-based services on your iPhone, you agree and consent to Apple’s and its partners’ and licensees’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data and queries to provide and improve such products and services. You may withdraw this consent at any time by going to the Location Services setting on your iPhone and either turning off the global Location Services setting or turning off the individual location settings of each location-aware application on your iPhone.

Apple has made it clear to us that our iPhone location data is used for different purposes, and by using the iPhone we have agreed that this is okay. However, Apple also says that we can stop this and “withdraw consent” at any time by disabling the location services on our device. Testing by the WSJ has revealed that this might not be the case:

The Journal disabled location services (which are on by default) and immediately recorded the data that had initially been gathered by the phone. The Journal then carried the phone to new locations and observed the data. Over the span of several hours as the phone was moved, it continued to collect location data from new places.

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  • Maheen Khalid

    Has anyone found where this file is located?

  • mrplowinc

    “Apple’s and its partners’ and licensees’ transmission, collection, maintenance, processing and use of your location data”
    The tracking data your referring to stays on your phone – this part of the agreement refers to data passed to Apple et al.
    So, no, turning location services off won’t change this in the same way changing your lock screen wallpaper won’t. These are two different things.

    My best advice is that those who are bothered by this should put the tin foil hat back on and use two yoghurt pots and a piece of string to communicate with others in the fraternity. Make sure you use unbranded tinfoil and you cover up the brand of yoghurt …. they can track that kind of data you know…….

    How much money will be wasted by chasing these particular demons I wonder….

  • iHate_Is_Back

    Dude shhhhhhh they’re watching us. From now on when posting be sure to only use the secret encrypted code.

  • mrplowinc

    It’s ok, I put a paper bag over my head when I was typing so they can’t see my face when they take control of my webcam

    ;)

  • Peter Moeser

    A rudimentary google search will show you how to find this file.

    Mrplowinc has it right. This is an issue for the tin foil hat brigade.
    Move along people. Nothing to see.
    Apple will not be forced into giving you a free anything to compensate you for nothing you’ve lost or been robbed of.
    I hope Apple sues back to recoup their losses on this spurious issue

  • Steven T

    you know, this location tracking is probably used for the Multitasking (Background location) in iOS. they will definitely need to store your last few location by cell triangulation to know that you are somewhere else. by turning off the location services, you only agree not to allow location service to any apps. but multitasking is a seperate module set in the code base, that’s why that “tracking” is probably not turned on. further more, this “tracking” do not use gps data, but purely cell triangular. in any case, most mobile phone, non-smartphones inclusive store the cell triangular information. whether these information get trashed is another thing.
    in this case, i guess apple seriously forget to clear the cache, and is a simple delete statement which they should be addressing in the next update.
    i don’t get the fuse over this cause, unless you open yourself to be physically exploit, your location information is actually still private and secret. and to begin with, if you have opened yourself to being physically exploited, there is probably more sensitive information that are been shared other than your location history.

  • Allan Cook

    If your phone is on, it can be tracked. End of story.

  • CharliK

    It is still caching because that list is not just about location services. When you have LS off, there is not transmission of anything to anyone. But even off, the other functions are in place (and are not transmitting data to anyone).

    Headlines like this one are what created LocationGate in the first place

  • imajoebob

    Last I knew it was illegal to turn off all location services, because it’s required for “enhanced 911″ calls. And before the nutjobs start screaming about not wanting or needing that, it’s not just for your protection, it’s for the rest of us, too. Otherwise, I’m laying on the ground in cardiac arrest for an extra 5 minutes because the police had to waste waste valuable time and effort trying to find your decaying carcass.

  • Larry Davis

    “Headlines like this one are what created LocationGate in the first place”

    Absolutely. Shoddy reporting like this is what builds up these non-issues. Clearly the ToS state you are withdrawing consent, not disabling the local database. And there is no indication from their horrible tests that anything was transmitted, so this is a non-story.

  • Alex

    Here download the program and it will show you http://petewarden.github.com/i

  • Alex

    I love how the kool aid drinkers will to defend anything Apple does ….

    http://gawker.com/#!5795442/ap

  • trrosen

    That’s because thats how phones work. Every phone made caches this data. It’s required for e-911. Saying the iPhone is tracking you is like saying your browsers back button is tracking you on the internet.

    Note please correct the article. The iPhone DOES NOT STORE USERS’ LOCATION DATA. The data is cell tower locations

  • marsofearth

    Everytime you connect to a cell tower you give away your “General” location. Same goes for any Network. Encrypting would be nice, but would that be illegal in the USA?

  • jethrObama

    I’m pretty sick of this issue, but here is my two cents: Steve Jobs expects a very high bar when it comes to HIS privacy. I believe he should (and probably does) want the same high bar for everyone’s privacy. It is my feeling, that an unencrypted location file is NOT what he had in mind and as soon as the next software iteration appears, we will all see some fix. Otherwise, maybe Apple is simply setting the “new bar” when it comes to respecting privacy… and that sword cuts two ways.

About the author

Killian BellKillian Bell is a staff writer based in the U.K. He has an interest in all things tech and also covers Android over at CultofAndroid.com. You can follow him on Twitter via @killianbell.

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