The ongoing kerfuffle over Apple devices allegedly tracking their users' locations has taken yet another turn. It all started on April 20th, when tech bloggers Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden reported their discovery that iPhones and 3G iPads running iOS4 were supposedly maintaining a stealth file of locations that the devices had traveled to – with their users. Apple responded on April 27th, stating that the devices were simply anonymously contributing to a database of local Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers, that helped to triangulate the phones' location faster than GPS alone. Now, however, a just-discovered patent application filed by Apple in 2009 has some people doubting that claim.
The application, entitled Location Histories for Location Aware Devices, begins with an abstract that states:
A location aware mobile device can include a baseband processor for communicating with one or more communication networks, such as a cellular network or WiFi network. In some implementations, the baseband processor 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 (e.g., latitude, longitude, altitude) 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.
While not necessarily all that sinister, the description does seem to be at odds with Apple's recent statement that "The iPhone is not logging your location." Some parts of the application appear to back up the company's claims that it's only interested in helping the phone to geographically locate itself, such as where it states:
... a map service may provide maps to a mobile device over a network, which can be used with one or more applications running on the mobile device. The introduction of a positioning system integrated with, or coupled to, the mobile device provides additional opportunities for providing location-based services.
Others, however, are potentially a bit more Big Brother-ish. Apple seems to be referring to tracking individual users, in this description:
In some implementations, the network information can include transmitter identifiers (IDs). For example, Cell IDs can be tracked and recorded. The Cell IDs can be mapped to corresponding cell tower locations which can be used to provide estimated position coordinates of the location aware device. When a location history is requested by a user or application (e.g., through an API), the transmitter IDs can be translated to position coordinates of the location aware device which can be reverse geocoded to map locations for display on a map view or for other purposes.
Of course, such technology could still ultimately just come down to a matter of helping the user figure out how far they are from Albuquerque. Again, though, it does seem to indicate that the iPhone is logging your location.
For the record, it should be noted that Apple's filing of the patent application could simply have been a case of the company protecting an idea that never actually made it into their products. In any case, it looks like the company's P.R. department has its work cut out for itself. We have contacted Apple for its side of the story, and will add an update when we hear back.
The complete application can be viewed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's website.