Apple Redefines 'Location' to Justify Stalking

To refute intense criticism that iPhones track their owners' every move, Apple today announced that "the iPhone is not logging your location," just what Wi-Fi stations you're near. Too bad Apple already admitted there's no difference.

A lengthy denial of guilt issued by Apple today hinges on the idea that Wi-Fi hotspots do not give away your location, stating, "The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested."

Gee, a hundred miles of inaccuracy? That sure sounds like a very approximate measure of a users' location, and will help many Apple customers set aside concerns building over the past week about the iPhone keeping a database of every Wi-Fi base station and cell tower you ever pass, and of Apple planning how to exploit that data.

But it's just not true. The iPhone does log your location, because it logs nearby Wi-Fi hotspots, which give accurate locations to within feet, not 100 miles.

And Apple has already admitted as much — in the user interface and marketing materials for the Wi-Fi-only iPad. That iPad ships with an Apple-built "Maps" application just like the one on the iPhone. To place "your current location" on the map, as Apple's interface phrases it, iPad consults, yes, Wi-Fi hotspots. That's because it has no GPS chip, unlike the iPhone or iPad 3G, so must triangulate your position by looking at where you are in relation to Wi-Fi networks with known locations.

This actually works quite well; my own Wi-Fi-only iPad can not only plot my address, but will actually adjust my location as I walk from one room to another. Wow.

Apple aggressively sells the power of this intimate location tracking. It has an entire web page, for example, designed to tout the iPad Maps application, and Wi-Fi based "location" tracking is a specific selling point, touted next to a picture of a Wi-Fi-only iPad honed in on a specific address:

Apple Redefines 'Location' to Justify Stalking

Apple goes on to promote this capability in a video, which shows a Wi-Fi-only ipad (without the 3G indicator in the top-left screen corner) jumping "right to your current location." (See video below.)

Then there's the interface within the iPad. When you first ask a Wi-Fi-only iPad's Apple Maps application to hone in on your location using Wi-Fi hotspots, it actually asks for permissing "to use your current location." In other words, it asks permission just to access one individual sample of the data that our iPhones have quietly stored en masse for 10 months.

Once permission is granted, the iPad will happily plot your "Current Location" using only Wi-Fi data. See the middle image on the left in the photo collage topping this post. As mentioned previously, the tracking is so accurate it adjusts as you move from room to room.

So Apple does not consider Wi-Fi hotspot data the same as location when explaining away its iPhone stalking, but it does consider it the same as location when marketing iPads, when plotting you in the Maps app, and when asking you for permission on whether to share your private data on the iPad.

And when defending itself against charges it has been violating user privacy by quietly accumulating Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data, it tries to make Wi-Fi triangulation seem rare and even anonymous. But there's nothing anonymous about a database of Wi-Fi hotspots that lives right on your phone, just as there's nothing inaccurate about the location data Apple has been collecting for the past 10 months.

[Photo of Steve Jobs via Getty]