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Apple says an iPhone feature needs your location, regardless of whether you share it or not

No need for consumers to get up in arms says one tech security chief -- it’s simply an unforced error

Photo (c) nemanjazotovic - Getty Images
There’s a new wrinkle in the personal privacy world. Security researcher Brian Krebs stumbled upon the fact that Apple’s iPhone 11 seeks out exactly where the user is located even when the user has turned off that feature from any and all apps and system services within the phone.

Krebs took a hard look at Apple’s privacy policy and didn’t like what he saw, either as a tech watcher or a consumer. Krebs points out that the privacy policy on the iPhone’s Location Services screen clearly says, “If Location Services is on, your iPhone will periodically send the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers (where supported by a device) in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple, to be used for augmenting this crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower locations.”

But it was the next part of the privacy policy that really got Krebs up in arms: “You can also disable location-based system services by tapping on System Services and turning off each location-based system service,” the policy states.

Not true, Krebs says. “Apparently there are some system services on this model (and possibly other iPhone 11 models) which request location data and cannot be disabled by users without completely turning off location services, as the arrow icon still appears periodically even after individually disabling all system services that use location.”

Apple responds

Apple’s comeback? It’s by design, the company says. 

“Ultra wideband technology is an industry standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations,” said one Apple spokesperson in a statement to TechCrunch. “iOS uses Location Services to help determine if an iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable ultra wideband and comply with regulations.”

“The management of ultra wideband compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device and Apple is not collecting user location data.”

In ConsumerAffairs’ research, Apple’s use of ultra-wideband doesn’t seem to be anything different than how other platforms and systems use the technology. In fact, the use of ultra-wideband is nothing new. It’s predominantly used for short-range indoor applications like wireless printing of photos from a phone or transferring files between mobile phones. 

It’s also all around us. It’s been used to monitor vital signs of the human body; the military has employed it to detect and identify buried IEDs and hidden adversaries at a safe distance; and the New York City subway system is testing it for use with signaling. However, that hasn’t stopped those in the industry from giving their two cents’ worth.

“I think this is a silly unforced error on Apple’s part,” tweeted Will Strafach, CEO of Guardian and the developer of Guardian Firewall, which claims to “blocks digital trackers from secretly collecting your information.”

Tempest in a teapot?

Is this a privacy issue? It could be if you want to take exception with Apple’s privacy policy and how this particular situation plays out vis-a-vis those guidelines. But Strafach may be correct when he called it a “silly unforced error.” TechCrunch also pointed to Apple’s sloth speed in responding to Krebs’ discovery, which probably made matters worse than they needed to be.

Whether this was an unforced error or Apple got caught doing something it shouldn’t, we probably will never know. Nonetheless, Apple said it will provide a new dedicated toggle option for the feature in an upcoming iOS update.

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