CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Last week's news that the iPhone and iPad are secretly logging users' whereabouts wasn't news at all to a local forensics specialist.
Christopher Vance, a digital forensics specialist at Marshall University on loan to the West Virginia State Police, said he discovered the devices' tracking database in August 2010.
Vance has spent the last two years as a mobile forensics specialist, pulling information from cell phones to use in criminal investigations.
He found the tracking information while checking out a new forensics program. He grabbed a cable and plugged in his new iPhone, curious to see what the program would find on his device. The software spotted a database file called "consolidated.db."
"I just sort of found it, didn't know what it was. At the time I didn't see any research as to what it was," he said.
Vance wrote a short post about his findings on his blog, "Cellular Sherlock" (blog.csvance.com).
He said he initially thought the information was used for Apple's iAds, an advertising service that allows application designers to tailor advertising to users' general location.
"Turns out, it's not. It's taking records of the local cell towers," he said. "Basically what the database is doing is keeping record of cell phone towers you're communicating with and Wi-Fi networks you're using."
Users' locations are expressed in longitude and latitude coordinates. The time of each "hit" also is recorded. Devices collect the data even with the iPhone's global positioning system feature turned off.
Vance said iPhones and wireless-enabled iPads have kept the information for a while now but the database became available to users only after an operating system update last summer.
"They moved this data to an area where forensic examiners could get access to it," he said.
He said he believes Apple built the tracking feature to make its phones work more efficiently, not to track users' whereabouts.
His guess is the record of cell phone towers and wireless Internet networks helps the phone's operating system work more efficiently. With a record of previously used towers or networks, reconnecting won't take as long. Whenever a phone needs GPS data, it has only to consult the database, Vance said.
Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, staffers for O'Reilly Media, a technology publishing company, announced last week that iPhones and iPads were collecting the tracking information, echoing Vance's seven-month-old findings.
Their talk at O'Reilly's Where 2.0 conference and its accompanying blog post made news around the world. News outlets large and small picked up the story, and the Internet still is ablaze with posts about the perceived security breach.
Vance believes the public's fears are largely unnecessary. He said there's no need to worry about strangers acquiring GPS information. To access consolidated.db, one must have direct access to the phone or the computer with which the phone is synchronized.
"It's not a real-time tracking system. It's not as accurate as people think it is," he said. "You can't just pull this data out of thin air."
The data also is not exact enough to pinpoint a user's exact location.