Official found iPhone GPS tracking system
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.
"It's very hard to determine where in a city someone is," Vance said.
He said he hasn't seen any evidence the data is transmitted to Apple or anyone else.
"Whether or not they're doing it, I haven't seen anything directly related to this," he said.
O'Reilly also released a tool, iPhonetracker, that allows users to plot their iPhone's collected coordinates on a map.
Anyone with an iPhone and a Mac computer can use the program, which is available for free at petewarden.github .com/iPhoneTracker. Just sync your iPhone or cellular-network-compatible iPad, run iPhoneTracker and watch as it maps your travels.
Vance said the public's recent anxiety about the GPS logging doesn't come from a fear of being tracked - Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare users frequently post their whereabouts.
"They don't feel like they were told by Apple what was going on. People aren't afraid to share their location. They just want to know they're the ones sharing it," he said.
The covertly collected data could prove useful for forensics specialists like Vance.
Although the information can't pinpoint a phone's exact location, Vance said it could place a suspect in the area of a crime. Wireless network
addresses prove even more useful.
"We could get lucky and see they connected with a Wi-Fi network that was close to a victim's house. But whether I know they were standing on this street corner at 11:52 p.m., no," he said
Vance said he's used the database in his forensic work and given suspects' GPS information to investigators.
"Whether or not it was useful, I couldn't tell you. For us, it hasn't been the smoking gun in any case," he said.
That may change, eventually. Vance said mobile forensics is an ever-expanding field, especially with the growing popularity of "smart phones" like the iPhone.
"The data that's even on your cheap phones is great data," Vance said.
Text messages, the call records kept by wireless companies, even photos and video sometimes can be used in investigations. Smart phones up the ante, Vance said.
"You're basically carrying a small computer in your pocket. The nice thing is, people are constantly carrying these things around with them," he said.
Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-7939 or email@example.com.