As reported by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden on O’Reilly on Wednesday, Apple’s iPhone and iPads with cellular data connections have been recording their users’ whereabouts in a file that gets backed up to their computers for reasons unknown.
This is bad news for privacy advocates, and computer users of all kinds, for that matter, but especially for residents of Michigan, where police have reportedly been hacking people’s smartphones after pulling them over. Presumably, the coppers would have all that location data, in addition to whatever embarrassing photos are on there from your last vacation.
However, this big privacy raincloud has a shiny silver lining, where music fans are concerned. Just imagine what the right apps could help you do with all that data!
5. Discover New Venues
Who knew that the dilapidated barn near your in-laws’ house hosts a hoedown every other Saturday? Thanks to Apple’s location scrutiny through iOS 4, now you know.
4. Local Bands In Multiple Locales
You’ve already combed your free weekly news rag for evidence of local bands, and most people know which big stars have emerged from their city or state. What about the other towns and cities you occasionally venture to? The historical location data so helpfully tabulated by Apple can help you rediscover those places, as you listen to music recorded by artists from there and find out when and where they’re playing.
3. Unearth Musical History
Apple records your iPhone’s or iPad’s location by longitude, latitude, and time, and stores it for up to 12 months. Why not download an app that mashes that data with all of musical history? You could discover that your commute takes you past the intersection where bluesman Robert Johnson is alleged to have made a pact with the devil, or maybe you drive past the heart of rock and roll (which is in Cleveland).
2. Create the Perfect Road Trip Playlists
With your permission, app developers could take Apple’s record of your travels and use it to create the ultimate road trip playlists for your most-used routes based on your musical taste, the weather, and other factors. Rain or shine, bike or drive, you’ll always have the perfect playlist for your most commonly used roads and trails.
1. Turn Your Breadcrumb Trail into a Song
Apple’s location records, as displayed by the iPhoneTracker in the screenshot above, take on a certain shape. For instance, the example above starts out sort of low, and gradually rises to a crescendo at the upper right. Before too long, apps (again, with your permission, because who would possibly want to look at this data without having that?) could translate that shape into an actual song. Just think: You’d be able to hum along to a shape representing all the places you’ve been since purchasing your iPhone or iPad.
In all seriousness, to find out where you’ve been according to your iPhone or 3G-capable iPad, run the open-source iPhone Tracker software (Mac-only) on the same computer with which you sync the device. The above screenshot is a representation of the sort of data you’ll see. Allan and Warden also include helpful instructions for finding the raw location data if that’s what you’re after (or if you want to see it using Windows or Linux).
To decrease the odds of your geographical data falling into the wrong hands, encrypt your iPhone back-ups by clicking on the iPad or iPhone in iTunes and checking the “Options > Encrypt iPhone Backup” box.
Other than that, we suggest waiting for apps that put this data to good use — this time, with your permission.
Update: Rochester Institute of Technology student and Katana Forensics lead engineer Alex Levinson claims that Apple is collecting but not harvesting this data and points out that he raised the issue earlier. Nonetheless, Apple has been collecting this data on iPhones and iPads and backing it up to computers.
4/22 Update: Google Android smartphones also track users’ data, as the Wall Street Journal points out. However, Android tracking consists of a list of the last 50 cellular towers and 200 WiFi hotspots you’re phone has detected or interacted with, and that list is constantly overwritten, and difficult to access. Apple’s location log lasts up to a year, and the company has yet to issue a public response, more than two days after the scandal broke.
(Image courtesy of O’Reilly)