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Thursday, April 21, 2011, 09:00 am PT (12:00 pm ET)

iOS location tracking file likely a bug, Apple could address issue with next udpate

A file that stores a detailed history of the approximate location an iPhone or 3G-equipped iPad has been is a result of a bug in the iOS operating system, and could be addressed by Apple in the next iOS update, according to a new report.

John Gruber of Daring Fireball commented on the controversial location tracking log Thursday. Though he cautioned that he doesn't have a "definitive answer" as to why Apple is storing users' location data in a database file, he has been told it is in fact an error.

"My little-birdie-informed understanding is that consolidated.db acts as a cache for location data, and that historical data should be getting culled but isn't, either due to a bug or, more likely, an oversight," Gruber wrote.

"I.e. someone wrote the code to cache location data but never wrote code to cull non-recent entries from the cache, so that a database that's meant to serve as a cache of your recent location data is instead a persistent log of your location history. I'd wager this gets fixed in the next iOS update."

Though the tracking file has existed since iOS 4 was released last year, and was even recognized before, the information gained traction on Wednesday when a pair of security researchers detailed the issue. They found that the iPhone and 3G-capable iPad are "regularly recording the position" of the devices and saving them in a hidden file.

The data in the consolidated.db file is backed up and restored through iTunes, and can even be transferred to a new device when syncing. Though the information is not shared with Apple or anyone else, the researchers view the file as a potential security threat, as anyone with access to the file could know where a person has traveled since owning an iOS 4-powered device.

Because data collection started with the release of iOS 4 last June, the file can be a comprehensive collection of locations with tens of thousands of data points stored. The location is believed to be determined through cell-tower triangulation, which is less accurate than GPS.

The researchers, Peter Warden and Alasdair Allan, have provided a free tool to the public that allows users to look at their own stored location data. Users are also advised to encrypt their iOS backups through iTunes to maximize security.