Word of the iPhone's surreptitious data-collection capabilities went viral last week after a pair of researchers in the United Kingdom unearthed database features that operate even when the phone's user-accessible location controls are turned off. University of Exeter researcher Alasdair Allan said his iPhone had stored date- and time-stamped location data on him for about 300 days. To give you a sense of the humongous number of data points Allan's phone was vacuuming up, check out this map he plotted from geo-codes it gathered during an Amtrak trip he made from Washington to New York.
Apple said the data-storage function was created to make the location services on the phone run faster and more reliably. But that long-term storage feature, according to Apple, was unintentional.
"The reason the iPhone stores so much data is a bug we uncovered and plan to fix shortly," the company stated in a news release.
Among the questions Apple asked itself was why the software keeps gathering geo-information even when its location services functions are supposedly turned off. The answer: Oops again.
"It shouldn't," according to the company. "This is a bug, which we plan to fix shortly.”
Smartphones, including Apple's very slick iPhone and then a flock of imitators powered with the Android operating system launched by a Google-led consortium, already seem more ubiquitous in healthcare than the stethoscope. And both types of phones were found last week to be gathering their users' sensitive geo-coded information.
When plugged into other software, time-stamped and geo-coded data could pinpoint a phone user's visit to a drug-treatment center, an abortion clinic or a psychiatrist's office, whether that user was an off-duty clinician or one of his or her patients.
These newly revealed iPhone “bugs” have made a few health privacy folks a wee bit itchy.
Apple indicated that it will exterminate some of these bugs via a free update of its operating system software
But encrypting the geo-location data cache stored on the phone itself will just have to wait for Apple's "next major iOS software release." The company statement gave no date for that release.
Once upon a time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said: "Privacy means people know what they are signing up for in plain English. Some people want to share more data. Ask them. Ask them every time. Let them know precisely what you are going to do with their data."
I guess a guy doesn't have to ask permission, though, if a bug grabs the data by mistake.
Follow Joseph Conn on Twitter: @MHJConn.