Apple: We’re Not Tracking Anyone, and We Never Will

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Listen up, world. Steve has something he wants to say:

“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”

It doesn’t happen very often but Apple does, every once in a while, make a public statement about something that isn’t directly related to new product announcements.

It happened when people made a fuss about iPhone 4 reception troubles. And it happened when Steve Jobs stepped aside for six months to focus on his health.

Now it’s happened again, with a forthright statement about the iPhone tracking furore.

It all began with the release of iPhoneTracker, a Mac app that unlocked access to the location database backed up inside iTunes every time you sync your iPhone.

The masses were in uproar. “Apple is tracking us!” they cried. “It’s a conspiracy!”

Um, no, it’s not. Turns out, it’s a combination of misunderstanding and some software bugs. Today’s statement by Apple fixes both.

The location database wasn’t tracking your phone at all, the company says. You wanted location services for all your apps, so the phone has to know where it is. It keeps track of its own location using a mixture of GPS data, and known locations of cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hotspots.

That’s why the maps generated by iPhoneTracker often had blobs hundreds of miles away from where the phone had actually been. They are the phone’s attempts to get a rough guess of its location. The device is constantly working to find out where it is, so it can use that data for your location-tagged Angry Birds scores. Or something.

Forthcoming iOS software updates will do several things: fix the bugs, cease backing up the location database to your Mac, and slim it down on your phone. Further ahead, the next major release of iOS will encrypt the database on the phone.

So is this an apology? Sort of. Apple does say, early on:

“Users are confused, partly because the creators of this new technology (including Apple) have not provided enough education about these issues to date.”

As we reported, none of this was new when iPhoneTracker came out. Alex Levinson had known about it for months, having written a book spelling out all the location data that could be found inside an iPhone and its backups. iPhoneTracker made the issue a bigger deal simply because it visualized it, turning abstract geekspeak about databases into pretty maps, which ended up plastered all over Flickr.

Suddenly this was an issue people could see, and that’s what caused all the fuss.

So, to sum up: Apple wasn’t tracking you. Your phone needs to know where it is so you can post geotagged status updates to Twitbook, or wherever you like to post things. There were some bugs. They’re going to be fixed. Keep calm, and carry on.

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