The original report by David Sarno of the LA Times set off a firestorm of privacy panic three days ago after it suggested Apple was tracking iPhone users' locations in some radical new way that other devices weren't, and assumed that users were powerless to do anything about it.
Apple may have revealed the location of a girl in 1990!
Other ad networks already do this, both on mobile ad networks like Google's AdMob, and in web advertising banners on the desktop, such as those presented by Google's DoubleClick business. Many users appear to be unaware that Google and other advertisers collect and store information about them to refine ad relevance, without ever asking for permission to use this data. Apple's approach is more cautious about the use of private user information, and more transparently presented to the user for approval, with simple controls to turn Location Services features off and opt out of location-based ads.
New Location Services features in iOS 4
in iOS 4, Apple is enabling iAd and other independent ad networks to collect private information, but limits this data collection exclusively for use in improving ad relevance. Apple's SDK rules specifically forbid developers from including code in their apps that would forward private user information to third parties for any other reason, something Jobs characterized as granting users "freedom from programs that steal your private data."
The rules also forbid developers from sending private user information from their App Store titles to Apple's competitors, presumably including Google and Microsoft, which could be used to help those companies to gain deep insight into how Apple's App Store works as a sort of industrial espionage.
- Turn off Location Services off system wide (which means GPS-enabled apps won't work at all. This has always been possible)
- Turn off Location Services within a specific app (preventing that app from determining the user's location; users have to first explicitly opt-in to Location Services on a per-app basis before the app can look up their location, so turning an app off is only necessary if the user has allowed the app to access location data. This is new in iOS 4)
- Opt out of iAd's use of Location Services by going to Apple's "Opt Out" URL from the device: http://oo.apple.com (which will prevent iAds from using location data to customize the ads it presents in apps that use the ad network. This is also new in iOS 4, which premieres the iAd program.)
In iOS 4, Apple also highlights the active use of Location Services (whenever the device's geographic data is being accessed by an app or the system, whether using GPS or Skyhook Wireless' WiFi triangulation data for determining location) with an arrow icon in the top bar of the iPhone's screen. This extra transparency was added in part because apps can now ask the user (via the operating system) to obtain Background Location updates even when they are not running.
If the user approves, the system will track the device's location, then wake the app at regular intervals to provide it with an update it can use to trigger local actions (in the case of an app like Tasker that tracks tasks related to the user's location) or send an update to a cloud service, such as a social networking service like Loopt or Google's Latitude, which track the position of users and their friends.
Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Location Services Party?
The letter asks the company to "please explain in detail why Apple decided to begin collecting location data at this time, and how it intends to use the data," apparently completely ignorant of the fact that mobile and desktop ad networks have been using user data, including location data, for years without disclosing this to the user in an accessible, transparent manner.
The letter also asks if Apple is "sharing consumer location information collected through iPhones and iPads with AT&T or other telecommunications carriers," as if mobile operators didn't already know the location of their subscribers based on the fact that mobile devices have to identify their location to cell towers to receive service.
Apple's answers to the questions are demanded by the middle of July, at which time they are likely to be publicly published.