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Apple could face criticism over changes to iOS 4 privacy policy

Change to OS allows user's locations to be pinpointed with GPS accuracy

Apple could face criticism after quietly updated its privacy policy as part of the iOS 4 update to allow the company to collect and share your smartphone, iPad or iPod Touch's location information.

According to The Los Angeles Times, which first reported the change, Apple says in its revised privacy policy that most location data is collected anonymously with the exception of services like Find My iPhone, which needs your personal information to work.

Apple uses your location data to "provide and improve location-based products and services", according to the revised privacy policy.

Some programs such as Google Maps offer services that use your computer's location information, but Apple's privacy change was made primarily for iOS devices including iPhones, iPad and iPods.

These devices offer a slew of applications that want to use your location data for everything from Foursquare check-ins to geo-tagging photos. Although Apple's policy change was recent, iPhone applications have been able to access your iPhone's precise location information since iPhone OS 3.

Under the recently released iOS 4, Apple has added new controls for location services that help you understand how your location data is being used. As was the case with iPhone OS 3, whenever an iPhone application wants to use your location data you must explicitly authorise it do so. In iOS 4, after that first-time authorisation, a small arrow appears on the top right of your iPhone screen every time your location information is being accessed by an application.

Apple also gives you granular control over which apps can use your location data in a new panel under Settings>General>Location Services. From here you can turn off all location services for your iPhone just as you could with iPhone OS 3.

New in iOS 4, however, is a list of apps that are able to use your location data. You can choose to permanently block any app using your location data including Apple's own applications like the camera and Safari.

The location settings control panel also places an alert icon next to any application that has accessed your location in the last 24 hours. In my tests, once you've blocked an app from accessing your location in the control panel, the blocked app will not ask you again to access your location data. So if you want to turn location access back on you will have to do it through the settings panel.

Overall, Apple appears to be doing a pretty good job with your location data; however there have been some criticisms over the new policy. Apple does not specify, for example, whether or not it will still track your location even with the Location Services global control turned off.

It's also not clear how long Apple intends to store your location data, and what kind of safeguards it has in place to protect its database of location information. I've asked Apple for clarification on these points.

Mobile phone location data is shaping up to become the next major privacy battlefield for civil rights advocates. NPR's On The Media (OTM) recently reported that requests by the US police force for mobile phone location data have become routine.

One US provider, Sprint,  was getting so many location requests from police that it set up what is "essentially a web portal for law enforcement to go to, to ping mobile phones to find their location based on GPS ," Electronic Frontier Foundation Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston told OTM.

Over one twelve month period Sprint's mobile phone location data site had been used eight million times by law enforcement officials, according to Bankston.

See also: Apple iBooks now runs on iPhone and iPod touch


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