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Apple collecting, sharing iPhone users' precise locations [Updated]

June 21, 2010 |  2:13 pm
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Satellite image of a Target store in New York. Credit: daiji / flickr

Apple Inc. is now collecting the "precise," "real-time geographic location" of its users' iPhones, iPads and computers.

In an updated version of its privacy policy, the company added a paragraph noting that once users agree, Apple and unspecified "partners and licensees" may collect and store user location data. 

When users attempt to download apps or media from the iTunes store, they are prompted to agree to the new terms and conditions. Until they agree, they cannot download anything through the store.

The company says the data is anonymous and does not personally identify users. Analysts have shown, however, that large, specific data sets can be used to identify people based on behavior patterns.

An increasing number of iPhone apps ask users for their location, which is then used by the application or even uploaded to the app's maker. Apps like the Twitter application Tweetie and Google Maps make frequent use of location data, either to help the user get oriented geographically or to associate the user's action with a specific location (as when a tweet is geotagged).

Apple says in its privacy policy that it uses personal information to "improve our services, content, and advertising." 

On Monday, Apple also rolled out its new advertising platform, iAd, for the latest version of its iPhone operating system (iOS 4). The company may well be integrating the location information into its advertising system -- for instance, to help local shops sell coupons to users in the neighborhood.

The update to the privacy policy did not specify which partners or licensees Apple will share the data with or how long the data will be kept. The only proprietary application it mentioned in relation to the data collection was the "Find My iPhone" app that helps users recover lost phones.

Apple did not immediately return a request for comment.

Here's the passage in question:

To provide location-based services on Apple products, Apple and our partners and licensees may collect, use, and share precise location data, including the real-time geographic location of your Apple computer or device. This location data is collected anonymously in a form that does not personally identify you and is used by Apple and our partners and licensees to provide and improve location-based products and services. For example, we may share geographic location with application providers when you opt in to their location services.

Some location-based services offered by Apple, such as the MobileMe “Find My iPhone” feature, require your personal information for the feature to work.

[Update #2, June 23rd, 1:25 p.m.: Apple has been collecting location information since 2008, when notice of that practice began to appear in its End User License Agreements for various Apple devices.  What the company did Monday was to move its language from those individual, device specific documents to its general privacy policy.  Apple still has not offered any comment on the nature of the "partners and licensees" it shares the location data with, or the time period for which it retains the data. By using the phones and devices, users are implicitly giving Apple their consent to collect the data.  But,  the EULA explains, users

may withdraw this consent at any time by going to the Location Services setting on your iPhone and either turning off the global Location Services setting or turning off the individual location settings of each location-aware application on your iPhone.

Update #1, June 21st, 4:11 p.m.: As some readers have noted, Apple has added a "Location Services" page under Settings-->General that allows users to prevent apps from using location information. However, there's nothing to indicate that these settings prevent Apple itself from gathering and storing location data from Apple devices.

As a point of comparison, Google has said for some time that it collects geo-data from Android phones. On a page about its mobile privacy practices, the company also offers this rather opaque description of what it collects and when:

If you use location-enabled products and services, such as Google Maps for mobile, you may be sending us location information. This information may reveal your actual location, such as GPS data, or it may not, such as when you submit a partial address to look at a map of the area.


-- David Sarno

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