After the revelation of a location-data cache on the iPhone, Apple is quickly working to quell any rumors that it has been spying on its users, explaining just what’s going on, what’s working right and what’s not, and announcing plans to release an iOS update to correct mistakes in how the system is implemented.
Basically, all that location data stored on the iPhone isn’t actually a record of your position, but the position of known WiFi access points and cell towers that have been in the vicinity of where you’ve been. Apple anonymously gathers this kind of data from its users to generate this database, then redistributes it to everyone else to help decrease the time needed to pinpoint position; while the iPhone’s GPS receiver is still getting a lock, this database can provide a rough estimate of location.
As far as Apple sees it, there are just a few things wrong with how iOS saves this cache data, and all are to be corrected in the next release of iOS. Firstly, there’s no reason to have a year’s worth of data saved, as only WiFi and tower data from your immediate vicinity is useful for this location estimation. To that end, Apple will decrease the amount of time iOS saves the information; it hasn’t said exactly what the cut-off will be, but noted that more than a week’s worth of cached data seemed excessive.
Secondly, users who disable Location Services are still having this data cached to their phones. Apple admits this is a goof, since the cache would be of no use to such users, so the next update will ensure it’s no longer downloaded as long as the function is disabled. Finally, the cache will no longer be backed-up in iTunes, limiting the chance for it to fall into the wrong hands.
While these steps don’t address all the issues with having such data stored on a smartphone (a clever criminal could still use a stolen iPhone to make some reasonable guesses about where its owner lives and works), limiting the amount of data and seeing that it’s only stored where it’s needed are big steps in the right direction. Look for Apple’s update to arrive in the next few weeks.