Breaking seven days of silence, Apple on Wednesday issued a flat denial that iPhones and iPads systematically log each user's location multiple times a day, and even brought CEO Steve Jobs out of medical leave to publicly back up that claim.
Yet, the company's complex explanation did not get Apple off the hook from a May 10 Senate hearing to examine the location-tracking systems of Apple iPhones and iPads, as well as Google Android handsets.
"I still have questions about what exactly happened here and why Apple didn't tell users about what it was doing," says Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who called the hearing. "And this has raised larger questions of how the locations of mobile devices are tracked and shared by companies like Apple and Google, and whether federal laws provide adequate protection as technology has advanced."
In a statement, Apple says, "The iPhone is not logging your location." And in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, Jobs emphasized that "we haven't been tracking anyone."
However, those denials hinge on a very narrow definition of location tracking, says Pete Warden, who, along with fellow British researcher, Alasdair Allan, discovered how iPhones keep a time-stamped log of each user's whereabouts. On Allan's personal iPhone, they found a detailed archive of locations Allan had visited in the U.S. and United Kingdom over a 300-day period.
According to its statement, Apple now asserts that Allan's iPhone itself did not do what Apple considers to be location logging. What the phone actually did was pull down location data points from a database Apple maintains of known Wi-Fi hot spots and cellphone towers.
Warden and Allan stumbled upon "files we have built through anonymous, crowd-sourced information that we collect from the tens of millions of iPhones out there," Jobs told the Journal.
Apple intends to continue sending Wi-Fi and cell tower data to all iPhones and iPads. But it will only store seven days' worth of such information, and stop backing up that information to users' computers when devices are synced. Apple will also turn off this service when the user disables the phone's location services. The company says software fixes to these "bugs" will be forthcoming in the next few weeks.
Google has confirmed that it does something similar with Android handsets, and actually harvests location data from Android users for marketing campaigns. Last week, Google said it obtains permission to run all Android location-tracking services, and the data are not traceable to individual users.
"Apple needs to do a lot more to explain what it has been doing and why, and a good start would be for Steve Jobs to appear at the hearing," says John Simpson, spokesman for Consumer Watchdog.