Clearly in damage control mode, Steve Jobs stepped out of medical leave on Wednesday to personally explain that Apple never attempted to track the whereabouts of iPhone users. This comes a week after researchers released a tool to extract location history from a file stored on machines running iTunes. It turns out that this information gets copied over to computers each time users sync their iPhone. The media raged into a storm of fear drawing comparisons reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984.
Jobs addressed the controversy along with Scott Forstall, senior vice president of iPhone software, and Philip W. Schiller, senior vice president of worldwide product marketing, saying, “We haven’t been tracking anybody. Never have. Never will.” Echoing a statement released on Apple’s website earlier this morning, Jobs explained that the file in question doesn’t store an individual phone’s location but rather a larger anonymous location-based dataset. Apple’s statement further elaborates on the issue, which it says is the consequence of “user confusion,” saying that iPhones aren’t logging onto individual locations and are instead “maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers…to help [the] iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested.”
Jobs went on to say the following:
“As new technology comes into the society, there is a period of adjustment and education. We haven’t—as an industry—done a very good job educating people, I think, as to some of the more subtle things going on here. As such, (people) jumped to a lot of the wrong conclusions in the last week.”
He also assured users that the information being stored for so long was a bug and that Apple will be issuing a software update that will limit the data storage for a maximum of seven days. The update will also delete the file entirely if a user chooses to disable location services.
Finally, Jobs announced that he “thinks Apple will be testifying” at the May 10 hearing of the Judiciary’s Committee Subcommittee on Privacy, Technology, and the Law. This comes after Democratic Senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont requested both Apple and Google to testify at the subcommittee’s first hearing on “Protecting Mobile Privacy: Your Smartphones, Tablets, Cell Phones, and Your Privacy” earlier this week.
This is clearly a step in the right direction. At least Jobs and Apple are acknowledging made mistakes with location storage and are working relatively quickly to remedy it with a software update. In addition, if Apple really does testify in front of Congress next month, maybe some of this “confusion” will be cleared up and us humble iPhone and iPad users can finally be “properly” educated once and for all. In the meantime, I am sure that Apple fans will get in line, irrespective of this matter, to get their hands on the mythical white iPhone 4 which goes on sale tomorrow.
Note: Sahas Katta contributed to and edited this article.