By Luis Estrada:
Let’s go to Washington, folks.
Earlier today, Apple’s VP of software technology Guy L. “Bud” Tribble appeared before a congressional hearing on mobile privacy to address concerns that were first brought to the forefront following the “location tracking” controversy that emerged a few weeks ago
In the wake of that hoopla, Apple’s higher ups – including Steve Jobs – publicly discussed the issue with the Wall Street Journal while also releasing an iOS update to address privacy concerns shortly thereafter.
Nevertheless, plans for a hearing on mobile privacy were already set in motion and Apple said it would be glad to participate.
Just a short while ago, Guy Tribble, who’s been associated with Apple since back in the early 80’s, addressed Congress and essentially reaffirmed what Apple had already stated in a press release a few weeks back.
Driving the point home, and hopefully allaying the concerns of folks worried about location tracking, Tribble said that Apple doesn’t track user location and has no plans to ever do so in the future. Next, Tribble explained that ascertaining a phone’s location solely with GPS can sometimes take a few minutes. So to speed up the process, Apple incorporates cell tower and wi-fi hotspot data to help accelerate the process. The end result is a crowd-sourced database of hotspots from millions of users.
Importantly, Tribble notes that no iOS device transmits to Apple any information that can be traced back to any individual device or consumer.
Next, Tribble explained that Apple gives customers control over location services and that they make it “extremely easy to opt out of location based services.” When the preference is switched off, iOS devices do not collect or transmit location information.
Further, Apple does not let any app collect or transmit location information without first obtaining user consent via a mandatory opt-in box that can’t be switched off.
Tribble also noted that parents have the option to password protect location services if they so choose.
Of course, there was a bug in iOS wherein a device would still collect location data even if location services was turned off. This bug was recently addressed and fixed in an iOS update last week.
Tribble finished up by reassuring everyone that Apple was never tracking the location of individuals and that the data stored on iOS devices wasn’t user location data, but again, cell tower and wifi hotspot data.
Lastly, Tribble acknowledged that the location data in question was not encrypted but that it will be in the next major iOS update.
“We share the subcommittees concern over misuses of customer data and appreciate the opportunity to explain our approach,” Tribble concluded.
And now some questions from our trusted elected officials.
Al Franken, who wrote a public letter to Steve Jobs over the issue, got things started
Franken: Apple says it builds a crowd-sourced database of celltower and wifi hotspots to accurately calculate a device’s location, but the letter you set me says the data isn’t your location. Are both of these statements true? Does this data indicate your location or not?
Tribble: The data in the database is the location of many hotspots and cell towers… It’s completely anonymous. However, when a portion of that database is downloaded onto your phone, your phone knows what towers and hotspots it can receive right now. The combination is how the phone figures out where it is without GPS.
Subsequently, a notable exchange between Google rep Alan Davidson. Trying to dance around how Google handles location settings in Android, Davidson explained:
We’re trying to increase openness, but it’s not no-holds-barred. We do have a content policy in our market. We don’t go after trucking companies for carrying faulty goods, you go after the manufacturer. There’s a balance.
Not buying it, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse fired back:
You do go after the trucking company if they know what they’re carrying. Google’s in a better position to know what’s going on than a seventeen year old that wants to try a cool app. I don’t think that’s a comfortable analogy for you to rely on.
The hearing closed out with a skeptical Franken expressing the following:
The people have a right to know what information they’re sharing, with who, and how that information is shared and used. After this hearing I still have serious doubts about how that information is protected in law and practice.
Then again, Franken didn’t quite grasp Tribble’s straightforward explanation about the type of data stored in Apple’s consolidated.db file. And never mind the fact Apple issued a easy to understand press release on the matter just last week.
Just another day at our nation’s capital, I guess.
And finally, in case you happen to be wondering who Bud Tribble is, he was a manager on Apple’s original Mac software development team and later followed Steve Jobs to NeXT. Tribble eventually returned to Apple in 2002 where he now serves as Apple’s VP of software technology. He’s an expert in object oriented programming and is loosely considered Apple’s unofficial CTO.