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Steve Jobs outlines Apple's efforts to clarify iPhone location tracking issue

In an interview with Wall Street Journal blogger Ina Fried, Apple's chief executive Steve Jobs explained the steps his company took to respond to the explosion of interest in reports concerning how iOS devices use location services.

Apple's official response to questions regarding how iPhones use, store and retain location data was published earlier today after the issue erupted a week ago.

Fried's interview with Jobs and Apple executives Phil Schiller and Scott Forstall outlined why the company took almost a week to respond to the initial report.

"We’re an engineering-driven company," Jobs said. “When people accuse us of things, the first thing we want to do is find out the truth. That took a certain amount of time to track all of these things down. And the accusations were coming day by day.

"By the time we had figured this all out, it took a few days. Then writing it up and trying to make it intelligible when this is a very high-tech topic took a few days. And here we are less than a week later.”

This all happened before

Apple's response to the snowballing coverage of iPhone location tracking was similar in some respects to last summer's major story of controversy swirling around iPhone 4 regarding signal attenuation caused by placement of the user's hand and the design of its antenna.

Apple prepared an extensive response to "AntennaGate" last July, nearly a month after a report by Gizmodo set off a hailstorm of chatter that mixed together nuggets of real issues with buckets of rampant hysteria that predicted a massive recall or the failure of iPhone 4 as a product.

Apple originally acknowledged the issue within days, but was criticized for not providing up the minute rebuttals to each new report issued between the third week of June and its official press conference addressing the antenna issues in mid July.

In responding to the new reports brewing about location services, Apple's measured response in the form of publishing clear answers and conducting limited interviews indicates the company is learning to react faster to address real issues before they can be blown too far out of proportion.

Avoiding comment on competitors

Jobs was also careful not to present evidence that other makers were doing the same or worse in regard to location tracking. During last summer's AntennaGate fiasco, Jobs presented a variety of phones from Motorola, HTC, Nokia, RIM and others exhibiting the same behavior as iPhone 4, noting the antenna performance was a complex, ongoing technical problem facing the entire industry.

That tactic may have backfired in quelling the issue, as executives from RIM, Nokia, HTC and Samsung all repudiated Apple's demonstrations as being, in the words of RIM executives, an "attempt to draw RIM into Apple's self-made debacle," while Nokia mocked Apple's "death grip" issues as being something its own phones had no issues with, despite Nokia warning its own customers in owners' manuals to "avoid touching the antenna area" and that "contact with antennas affects the communication quality."

In contrast, when asked today whether Apple's competitors, including Google's Android, 'needed to do a better job on privacy issues' regarding location services, Jobs declined to comment, but did state that "some of them don’t do what we do, that’s for sure."

Balancing sensitive location information with features

Instead of comparing the iOS to competing platforms, Jobs emphasized Apple's efforts protect users' privacy as a simple, two-part policy: "Number one is we get consent from users if we are going to use location, or we never use location. That’s what we do. It’s very straightforward," Jobs said.

"We haven’t been tracking anybody’s location and the files they found on these phones, as we explained, it turned out were basically files we have built through anonymous, crowdsourced information that we collect from the tens of millions of iPhones out there," he reiterated.

"We build a crowdsourced database of Wi-Fi and cell tower hot spots, but those can be over 100 miles away from where you are. Those are not telling you anything about your location. That’s what people saw on the phone and mistook it for location."

You're holding the data wrong

Forstall, who leads Apple's iOS development, added in the interview that "one thing I think we have learned is that, the cache we had on the system, the point of that cache, is we do all the location calculations on the phone itself so no location calculations are done separately.

"You can imagine in an ideal world the entire crowdsourced database is on the phone and it just never has to talk to a server to do these calculations to even get the cache. What we do is we cache a subset of that. We picked a size, around 2MB, which is less than half a song. It turns out it was fairly large and could hold items for a long time.

"We had that protected on the system. It had root protection and was sandboxed from any other application. But if someone hacks their phone and jailbreaks it, they can get to this and misunderstand the point of that.

"It’s all anonymous and cannot be traced back to any individual phone or person. But we need to be even more careful about what files are on the phone, even if they are protected," he said.

Previously, it had been reported that iOS 4 had been recording a trail of the user's locations that was never erased, and some had speculated that is was simply a bug and that old entries should have been culled. Forstall's explanation went further to note that the discovery of the location data had simply been reported wrong based on faulty assumptions, but also that Apple had learned from the situation that additional steps could be taken to reduce even the appearance of sensitive data being held for unknown purposes.

Apple plans tech lessons to bring society up to speed

Jobs added that "as new technology comes into the society there is a period of adjustment and education We haven’t as an industry done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here. As such, (people) jumped to a lot of wrong conclusions in the last week. I think the right time to educate people is when there is no problem. i think we will probably ask ourselves how we can do some of that, as an industry."

Asked about the questions raised by the US Congress, Jobs said, "I think Apple will be testifying. They have asked us to come and we will honor their request, of course. I think it is great that they are investigating this and I think it will be interesting to see how aggressive or lazy the press is on this in terms of investigating the rest of the participants in the industry and finding out what they do."

That's when Jobs added, "some of them don’t do what we do, that’s for sure," which sounded like a dare to journalists covering the issue to look into how Apple's policies compare to other platforms, rather than laying it out as a completive message as Apple did with the AntennaGate issue last summer.

There's an app for that

Fried asked about the role of third party apps in location services, noting that there are "apps that do as little, on the Android side, as providing battery information and want access to the dialer and location information. Do you think consumers ought to be paying attention to the individual apps they are using and what sorts of permissions those apps (require)?"

Jobs answered, "We think so and that’s why we were the first to institute a procedure that cannot be worked around by applications where if any application wants access to location data, it has to ask the user first. It has to get the user’s permission on a per-application basis."

Forstall added, "we are really vigilent about privacy and location and we have worked really hard to make the experience as transparent as possible and give the user full control. As you say, whenever any user wants any application to access their location, the user has to approve that on a per-application basis. That’s even true for Apple’s built-in applications.

"In addition, whenever any application uses location, an indicator appears in the status bar. In settings, you can see a list of every single application on the phone that a user has approved for location and the ones that they have not approved for location. They can actually go and turn it off temporarily for an app, if they like.

"In addition, any application which has used location within the last 24 hours is shown, with an indicator in settings. So a user can know which applications that a user has approved for location, have actually used location recently. We think this is incredibly fine grain and the best out there."