Apple applied for a broad patent on location tracking services back in September 2009 — the kind of location tracking that is now causing a storm of controversy.
The patent application, entitled “Location Histories for Location Aware Devices,” throws some light on the iPhone tracking issue, which is soon to be the subject of a Senate hearing.
The wide-ranging patent describes several technologies and services for tracking the location of devices, including computers, MP3 players and game consoles, as well as mobile devices like iPads and iPhones.
A location aware mobile device 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 … 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 all or part of the location history for display in a map view.
The patent application describes processes for tracking devices even when they are in sleep mode, and describes how location data can be used to trigger camera functions or unlock the device.
The application mostly concentrates on the functions of the controversial consolidated.db file, which has been the focus of intense scrutiny in the last few weeks from privacy advocates.
Critics say the file could used to track users, while Apple has said it is used only for internal functions like mapping. Apple has also said that the file has several bugs that will be fixed soon.
The patent application describes processes for sending data to network services, which return precise information about location, and for tracking particular mobile devices, which theoretically could be used to identify individuals.
Apple has denied that it tracks users or stores data that could be used to identify individuals. In a Q&A published last week, Apple admitted that it is collecting anonymous data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database and to serve location-aware iAds.
Some may suggest that a 2009 patent application throws Apple’s statements into doubt.
However, patents and patent applications are mostly legal tools. They are rarely statements of intent or product roadmaps. Companies like Apple routinely apply for wide-ranging patents to protect their technology, but also to protect against future lawsuits. It is rare that a patent or patent application spells out a company’s precise plans for particular product or services.
In other words, just because Apple applied for a patent for location tracking, it may have had no intention to implement the technologies described.
Here’s the patent application: Location Histories for Location Aware Devices