A Clarification on Yesterday's iPhone/iPad Location Data Story
April 21, 2011BEGIN TRANSCRIPTRUSH:
I want to clear up something that came up on the program yesterday that has a lot of people panicked, and that is the location services bit about the iPhone. Apparently the research that produced yesterday's story is not complete and is in fact erroneous, and that in fact there's nothing new about the iPhone calculating where it is. Current iPhone software, iPads, too, by the way, if they're 3G capable do the same thing. They keep a log of wherever they are. Interesting to note, though, it's done not by GPS but by cell phone triangulation. It's not pinpoint. But apparently this file used to be in the system software version three, and it was hidden, and it was hard to find. It became viewable and unencrypted in system four, which was introduced last summer, because it is used for notifications services, Push, and all that via multitasking, keeping multiple applications open at one time.
There's a long story today, a post by Alex Levinson, who is basically a forensics specialist when it comes to computer software. He read the story about the big stink, the story yesterday that your iPhone keeps track of wherever it has been. Of course people wonder is the phone alerting people, law enforcement, anybody else, is the phone reporting where it's been? This is a big privacy snafu. And the short answer is, yeah, the phone is reporting where it's been, but not for the reasons that you think, and that it's nothing new. In iOS 4 it's always been there. Three essential aspects here, Mr. Levinson claims: "Apple is not collecting this data. And to suggest otherwise is completely misrepresenting Apple." He's got a long explanation of why and how this is the case.
Number two: "The hidden file is neither new nor secret. It’s just moved. Location services have been available to the Apple device for some time. Understand what this file is -- a log generated by the various radios and sensors located within the device." Again, the iPhone or the iPad with 3G. "This file is utilized by several operations on the device that actually is what makes this device pretty 'smart.' This file existed in a different form prior to iOS 4, but not in form it is today." The name of the file as it exists today is called "consolidated.db, and it lies within the 'User Data Partition' on the device." It's not collecting the data. The hidden file is neither new nor secret, and the third aspect is that this discovery was published months ago by Mr. Levinson, and the story on his blog site basically establishes with proper documentation how Apple has even warned of this, Apple has even, in the new iOS release asked, will you accept the fact that this is gonna be happening?
So for all of you worried about your iPhone being a secret weapon used by authorities to keep track of you, that's not what's going on. Everything I said about it is true yesterday. The data does go to your laptop or your desktop computer, whatever you use with iTunes to sync your iPad or your iPhone. But the guy's name is Alex Levinson, he says it's not secret; it's not malicious; it's not hidden. He's a senior engineer for Katana Forensics. He publishes Lantern, which is an iOS software system forensic application and he says that this file's a database of radio logs. It includes geolocational data. It used to be known by another name. It was hidden away from users and applications inside the inaccessible library folder. But when Apple added multitasking to iOS 4 last year the file was made accessible to third-party apps to operate in the background. It moved out of the hard-to-access library folder and became part of the multitasking and background location services folder. He says that on the iPhone or 3G iPad users still have full control of their location data. You can turn it off. But if you turn it off, the apps that use multitasking and where your location is will not be able to use that service. A log will still be kept. But he says there's nothing nefarious here. There's nothing new in it. The data is not being used for nefarious purposes. So we will link to this. It's a long read if you care, but I wanted to give you the overview here.
There's another story, some guy at PC World or PC magazine, I forget which it is, claims that Apple is collecting the data so as to create better networks, that they are using the collected data to find better Wi-Fi points and cell tower locations. It's just a wild guess. But he says Apple has signaled that that's one of their intentions. Now, Mr. Levinson's post knocks that one out of the water and he really chides these guys and O'Reilly, which is where the two researchers were for being premature here and for ignoring him and his research on this, about which he has written a book. So I guess the bottom line here is that the initial story yesterday is not correct. The brand-new application, brand-new secret location device that gives you up is not at all what this file is. (interruption) Well, I had a bunch of emails. Of course they were worried about it, Snerdley, you know the tinfoil hat crowd out there, the black helicopter bunch.
Yeah, a lot of people are worried about the incursion of authorities and third parties into their lives, and it's understandable, you know, with the kind of people running the country now. You take a little piece of information like this, "Did you know that your iPhone keeps track of where you are?" That's all it takes. "Did you know your iPhone is keeping track of everywhere you go, and here's an application that will produce on a map everywhere you've been. Would you like your wife to get hold of that? Would you like your husband to get hold of that?" You put all that together with the fact that Algore sits on the Apple board, the fact that Apple is a bunch of libs associated with the regime and so forth, you start putting these things together, and it's not hard for people to think that there may be something nefarious going on. So, yeah, there were a lot of people who are a little concerned about this. I've given some people over the years iPhones and iPads and they ask me if they should stop using them, and I said, "Well, what are you worried about? I mean you know where you've been. Is it so shocking to look at a map and see where you've been?"
"Well, no, but it's shocking the phone knows."
"Well, how could the phone not know? It uses GPS. It uses cell phone towers to communicate. How could the phone not know where it's been?"
"Well, yeah, but is telling everybody."
"No, it's not telling everybody."
"Well, the cops can get in there and get it."
"Yeah, I guess the cops could. The cops can do it with a warrant. They can come in and they don't need to get your phone for this, by the way. They can just go to your laptop or whatever computer you're using iTunes to sync your iPad or iPhone. If they want to get that, law authorities know how to go in and get this stuff." It is unnerving, but if you put this together with who's running the show now and look at all of the -- remember, now, Snerdley, you can't divorce this incident from the past. Remember all of the allegations, George Bush monitoring your phone calls trying to find out exactly who you're talking to, warrantless wiretaps, all that stuff, government trying to find out everything, government trying to find force you out of your car, government doing this, yeah, so people had some legitimate concerns.
This Levinson guy basically has written here that everything you heard about this yesterday in regards to it being some sort of secret nefarious way to get you in trouble is not at all what's going on here. That in fact it is a file necessary for the phone to be classified as a smart phone, to be able to multitask and to be able to use certain applications that require GPS and location service. But if you don't like this, turn it off. Your phone's location is still gonna be known. Cell towers can still find your phone whether you're making a call or not. So that's that. Let me send the link of this up to Koko at the website. It's somewhat technical. I didn't want to read every technical aspect of this to you, but you can read it yourself if you have any further interest.
RUSH: Here's a couple sample e-mails. Snerdley, here's just a couple sample e-mails of what's happening ever since my most recent explanation. "I'm not buying the iPhone stuff. Information is power! It's shocking Apple knows and is accumulating information. I don't believe anything of this opinion it's true. They have to be collecting data. I want to know why." I mean, the list is going on and on and on here. So let me just read what Mr. Levenson writes here. We have put the link at RushLimbaugh.com if you want to read the whole thing for yourself. By the way, folks, if you are an Apple aficionado, some of you may have the service they offer called MobileMe. Well, MobileMe offers a feature called "Find My iPhone," "Find My iPad."
How do you think that works? That actually works on GPS. That will pinpoint the location of your phone. If somebody steals your phone or if you've lost your phone, you can track it. I read a story just this morning of how somebody got their iPad back. It was stolen. When the left was going bananas over the thought that Bush and Cheney were listening in on their phone calls, I said, "What makes you think you are so important that Bush would care what you're doing?" Well, by the same token: What makes you think you're so important Steve Jobs is worried about where you are and what you're doing every day, or whoever else at Apple?
You know, from the one hand we can go from, "Oh, my gosh! Oh, my gosh! We're destroying the planet! Nah, we're no different than mice," to "I am so important that Steve Jobs wants to find out what I'm doing every day," or, "I'm so important that Apple, working with the government, is gonna collect data and report to somebody on where my phone is every day!" Anyway, the iPhone tracking issue isn't new. It isn't really tracking users, according to Alex Levenson, who is an Apple software forensics researcher.
"It's actually a data file that is used internally by the iPhone to do things like geo-tag photos, and it's been in iOS for a long time," In the software prior to the release of iOS 4 in June it was in a different form. Now "the file has become more accessible than it used to be because it's now used by third-party apps that require location data." What's new is a nifty extraction tool called the iPhone tracker that pulls the data off your hard drive and makes a map out of where your phone has been. That was the story from yesterday. "'It is not secret, malicious, or hidden,' writes Alex Levinson, an iOS forensics researcher."
And, by the way, I forgot to mention this yesterday: If you want to encrypt the backup file, you can. I'm not gonna say much more about this, but when you connect your iPhone or your 3G iPad to your computer and fire up iTunes to sync it, you have an option to encrypt the backup -- and if you do that you can encrypt the backup and make it a lot harder for anybody that steals your computer or seizes it with a warrant to get this file, but know that this file is being used by your phone multiple times throughout the day (I mean, almost constantly) as long as you have Location Services turned on.
As I pointed out, the database is not storing GPS data. It's not pinpoint location of your phone or where you are. It's triangulation via cell tower, so it's not an exact location. It's not pinpoint. A third-party could not get access to the file without physical access to your computer or your iPhone. Now, if you've jail-broken the phone that's a different matter. Then you're wide open then, if you've jail-broken your phone. That's a whole different thing. So the whole story and links to other versions of the story are now up at RushLimbaugh.com if you want to go further. It's amazing how this thing sperad.
I mean, one little story sprung to life, everybody's got their theories about what's going on. There's still a lot of doubt and suspicion out there about this -- and, you know, some of it's understandable. Now, I guess the thing to do here is somehow find a way to get Osama Bin Laden an iPhone and then teach him how to use iTunes. Then teach him how to sync his iPhone to iTunes, make sure he doesn't use the Encrypt Your Backup button when he's backing up what on his iPhone, and, voila! We could find him. Send him an iPad. Somebody knows where he is. But if you're an Apple person and you've got MobileMe, but Find My iPhone or Find My iPad is a feature and that's how it works.END TRANSCRIPT