Your iPhone tracks where it is and when each time it communicates with location-based services. Currently, this issue is stirring up the Internet with privacy concerns, and has even caused a lawsuit to be filed. The concerns of having this data unencrypted and easily accessible can’t be ignored, but here’s a thought:

What if some of the saved data is wrong?

Having an iPhone 4, I decided to remove the curtain on its location tracking to see what I would find.  I downloaded the iPhoneTracker project by Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden to get a full map view of my locations since purchasing my iPhone 4 last summer. This method doesn’t require any hacking or jailbreaking, because it reads from your iPhone backup saved by iTunes. So, anyone can do it: Yourself, your spouse, a private investigator, a hacker… anyone! After downloading the app, I ran it and zoomed into my New England region.

Obviously, I haven’t gone very far in the past year. A couple of drives out of state, and a LOT of commutes to my former and current jobs. Very interesting to see, but absolutely no surprises.

Then, I zoomed out the map.

What do we have here? Why are there specks over in the Western USA? Curiosity had me zoom in closer…

My iPhone seems to think it called for GPS tracking from outside of Las Vegas.  The problem: I’ve never been to Vegas. The farthest west I’ve ever been was Alabama, and I was still in school when that trip happened. Naturally, I wanted to know why my phone thinks it travelled without me.

Being on a Mac, I downloaded the iPhone Backup Extractor to tear into my iPhone backup file. Again, this can be done on an non-jailbroken iPhone, so you can do it too! After ripping out all the main files, I navigated to my iPhone’s cache folder, and within “locationd” I found the file: “consolidated.db.”  Considering this is a database file, I had to play around with my Mac’s Terminal using SQLite 3 to extract the data (which, while anyone can do, if you’re not comfortable working in a command-line-based environment, there are GUI options available with some quick Google searches). The table named “CellLocation” had all the information I needed.  I exported the data as a CSV and opened it as a spreadsheet.

My phone had saved around 6,500 entries, which include longitude, latitude, and time.  The first entry dates to when I first had my phone activated at the Mac Store on launch day, and it’s GPS location accurate to where I bought it.  After some searching—thankfully, not long—I found my “lucky” Vegas numbers.

There were 21 callouts to slightly different locations in the area! However, when I looked at the time they occurred, they happened all at the exact same second. The times listed on the logs are in seconds, with 0 being January 1st, 2001. After converting seconds to days, it put the point of callouts to July 11th, 2010.  Plus, the locations are within miles of each other, but they aren’t the exact same location.

I figured it was a stupid glitch.

But, let’s think about this for a moment. Why did this happen? The data from the “CellLocation” table is a confirmation of GPS data sent and received by the cell phone towers nearby. When a location is pin-pointed by the towers, the data is sent back to the iPhone and recorded.

Which leaves me to ask: Did my iPhone record inaccurately, or did AT&T supply my phone with false data?

In my case, it was pretty obvious from the time codes that this was a service or device error.  However, this shows that the possibility of inaccurate tracking data is possible. While people are concerned about their privacy with the iPhone saving locations, I’m more troubled by the thought that recorded locations could be faulty on occasion.  

Maybe there’s a good reason this happened, but the data doesn’t tell you why or how it happened.  Not knowing this can only lead to assumptions.  I claim I’ve never been to Vegas, but my phone says otherwise. Who do you trust: Me or my phone?

So, with all this in mind, if you have an iPhone, maybe you should take the time to find out what your phone has stored about your locations. Let me know what you find. Any surprises?

Update 4.27.2011Apple has officially addressed the location data collection issue. While they explain how their logging and GPS signals work, it doesn’t exactly explain the particular issue I wrote about. We’ll just have to see if anyone else has experienced the same phenomenon as me. If so, please let me know!


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