Ina Fried

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My iPhone Is Tracking Me? That’s Outrageous, But Also Kind of Cool.

What an interesting Wednesday this is turning out to be. The day began with a technical article highlighting the fact that the iPhone has been keeping a detailed log of all the places it has been. It’s a bit like that cousin who makes a scrapbook after each vacation, only if she had even more time on her hands.

It turns out the iPhone (and 3G iPad models) have been saving up this information since the arrival of iOS 4 and storing it in a handy little unencrypted database on the iPhone itself, which is also backed up to whatever computer the phone is syncing to.

The first reaction was obvious. There was the predictable (and frankly quite understandable) concern about this data, followed by tons of fomented frenzy. Had users agreed to this collection? Where it was being stored? How was it being used and why wasn’t it better protected?

Second, and more interesting, was the rush to willingly share all this privacy-invading data. Thanks to a nifty app that maps the information, it’s quite easy to do. And lots of people have done so.

I think this tweet from Chris Mulligan about sums up the mixed emotions rushing through many an iPhone owner this morning.

“The iPhone tracking is pretty sweet, but I wish it had more detail,” he wrote. “It’s missing a few places I’ve been. :( Oh, and I guess encryption?”

Of course, I am both that scrapbooking cousin and one who feels compelled to share. Here, for example, are some of the places that my iPhone has visited.

It appears I have been to lots of places in California, as well as to Orlando (CTIA), Las Vegas (CES), Tahoe (fun weekend with friends) and New York (Verizon iPhone launch), among other places.

Now, all that being said, the information that the iPhone is collecting apparently goes deeper and also includes time and very specific place information, which could be used in all kinds of not-so-nice ways.

Although I am willing to share this data in a fairly undetailed map with the world, as are apparently lots of others, it’s unclear that everyone would want to share exactly everywhere they have been–and when.

Cue lines like “Hmm, you called in sick on Thursday, but your iPhone was at the movies all day” and “Honey, why were you with your ex last week–at her apartment?”

Plenty of legitimate questions about this remain, including why the h-e-double-hockey-sticks wasn’t the information at the very least encrypted. I’ve reached out to the folks in Cupertino and will let you know what I hear back.

By the way, cellphone carriers already have such information, but they tend to take better security precautions and don’t give out the information without a court order.

Also, there is an option in iTunes to encrypt its backup with the iPhone, though it is not immediately clear if this would solve all of the issues.