Dev-Team: Palm Pre May Track User Location, but 3rd Party iPhone Apps Do Too!


The iPhone Dev-Team take a break from the Jailbreak to throw some light on the issue of 3rd party iPhone apps tracking users' location. Joey Hess and our friends over at kicked up a bit of a ruckus last week detailing how the Palm Pre reports users' location data back to Palm HQ. Well, says the Dev-Team:

Although we have yet to find an application by Apple that tracks your location, there are certainly a number of “free” applications in the official AppStore that are designed to do just that. Case in point: there’s this rather cute/gimicky app that lets you determine the tip for your waiter or waitress by tilting your phone as you pass it around the restaurant table. But if you dig a little deeper (like bushing did) you’ll find it uses a library by Pinch Media that is specifically designed to track your geographical location through time, then upload that data to Pinch Media. (Oh and it also show you an ad, as an extra bonus).

They point out that the iPhone will ask before any app is allowed to use location data, but also that it will keep asking to the extent that users might just agree to prevent being constantly annoyed with popups.

The Dev-Team goes so far as to describe these types of apps using the dreaded "s" word. That's right -- SPYWARE. However, in a web increasingly dominated by companies seeking to aggregate (hopefully anonymized?!) user data as a way to monetize (providing free or cheap apps in exchange for the shared data and tolerance for advertising), how broadly can that term now be applied? Many, especially tech-savvy, users are happy to let Google's Gmail scan their email and serve ads in exchange for the service (and don't even get us started on Chrome parsing all URLs a user enters through Google, or their purchase of DoubleClick...)

Should we be concerned more about small, 3rd party companies? About Apple, Palm, and Google-type companies? Or is it just the way of the world now?

How about this -- Perhaps Apple could give us app-specific Location settings, much as we now have app-specific Notification settings? That way, there'd be a list of apps that use location, and we could individually turn off those with which we don't want to share our location. How about it, Apple?

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Rene Ritchie

EiC of iMore, EP of Mobile Nations, Apple analyst, co-host of Debug, Iterate, Vector, Review, and MacBreak Weekly podcasts. Cook, grappler, photon wrangler. Follow him on Twitter and Google+.

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Reader comments

Dev-Team: Palm Pre May Track User Location, but 3rd Party iPhone Apps Do Too!


I agree. Shazam, for example, always asks for my location. I can't seem to figure out why a name that tune app would be concerned about my location, other then marketing (obviosuly).

Yes I've always found the location thingie a bit annoying. It WOULD be good to have something that'll allow us to choose when we want to share our location and when we wouldn't want to.

Dumb rebuttal. PALM is tracking your location and storing that data. Apple is not. If a third-party company does that with their software on the iPhone, don't install it. Problem solved.
Apple users are not subjected to this. Palm users are.

Not a rebuttal, just a point... whether it's our cell phone manufacturer or software company that phone utilizes, we're being watched. Personally I think it's rather silly that you would just prefer a back-and-forth and make it all about Palm vs Apple. Fact is we're all being watched regardless of what phone we use. MOST IMPORTANTLY, the info (at least sent by the Palm Pre) is NOT identifying.
In the end, I agree with @fastlane. If you want my GPS coordinates, use 'em. "I’m not running a meth lab or prostitution ring." LOL

You can opt out of the GPS tracking on the Palm Pre unit. This whole gps tracking was so hyped up by the media and bloggers that they completely forgot to ask "But can you opt out?". Yes. It's in the settings options. This rebuttal is now slowly making it's way around the internet.

Apps that use pinch media do not tell you they are doing so.
Bottom line: you have no way to know if an app you buy contains the pinch media libraries. So telling people to "just say no" will not work.

This is kinda crazy... almost all web sites you go to track your location. This is just a little more scecific because of the gps. Location data can be super useful if used right.

Yes, you can track the iPhone location using specially crafted web pages with the iPhone, but there is a world of difference betweeen that and what the Pre is doing. When I hit a web page that wants to track my whereabouts, I get a warning message, similar to the one used in this story. The iPhone doesn't hide the fact, or obscure it.
The big thing about the Pre was that they discovered it was sending location information back to the mothership without letting the user know. If it weren't for a hacker with a Sniffer, we may never have know.

Many apps track your location ONLY because those ad-mob ads to support the "free" version.
Always file a problem report to apple when you see this. Do it frequently. It does work. Apple will forward those complaints to the developer.
Often the developer is unaware because they pressed the allow button and forgot it.

Another consideration to keep in mind:
Apple, Palm, Google are all BIG companies with LOTS of money, which means they most likely will NOT go bankrupt any time soon (well, not sure about Palm). A 3rd party app, like your favorite fart app that wants to know where you farted your last fart (I just made that up, but plug in your own example) may not be very secure, it might collect non-anonymized data, it may go bankrupt and its assets might be ceased by another evil company/govt, it is probably easily hackable too.
When given the choice of unknowing collection of personal data, big companies, no matter how evil, are probably a much safer evil in the big run.

omg, you serious???? F@RT is now a bad word??? good god, what have we come to...
PS your system does not detected past tense. better fix it quick before some 16.9 year olds read my post

In reply to Scott........
Shazam asks for your location because each tag that is saved is given a geotag. That means that tags have the location of where they were recorded.