Nemesis List: The iPhone spyPhone

Big Brother has gone corporate, and he's in your pocket.
You've dallied here. And you've loitered there. Here too. And also here. How do we know? Your smart phone told us so. (Photo: Google Maps)
Apr 21, 2011
Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

Subject: Apple’s retro suave objects of design desire: the iPhone and iPad.

Occupation: Apple’s phone and tablet are constantly tracking the geographic coordinates of gadget fiends who have purchased these retro suave objects—with no consent from or notification to the gadget fiends.

How the Nemesis Works: An unencrypted file, "consolidated.db," seems to be installed when Apple fiends download iOS 4 software. The file collects latitude, longitude and a time stamp (to the second), along with the IP address for any wireless network the phone accesses.

The Nemesis’s Nemeses: Two U.K. security researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, shocked the Where 2.0 conference in Santa Clara, California, on Wednesday with their discovery that Apple’s objects are, basically, spying on the people who buy them. When the mobile devices are backed up on a computer, the culled data is transferred and lodged in iTunes. The data transfers to any new or replacement devices, and cannot be erased by the device's owner.

Why the Nemesis Does What It Does: Researchers Allan and Warden guess that Apple may be preparing upcoming features that will work in conjunction with a fiend’s location history. Perhaps one day soon, messages will arrive on your iPhone reminding you to retrace your steps and buy a coffee at the Starbucks you had successfully blotted from your consciousness three blocks back.

Does the Nemesis Transfer Your Information Elsewhere?: Again, according to Allan and Warden, “There’s no evidence that [your personal data is] being transmitted beyond your device and any machines you sync it with.” But would there be any evidence? Apple is a corporation known for melding design with function in a seamless whole. Think about it: No evidence existed that your iPhone was snitching you out until Allan and Warden dug up the proof.

What’s So Wrong About What the Nemesis Does?: In the course of doing business, all cell-phone companies gather customers’ GPS type data. Unlike Apple, most mobile providers keep user information behind a firewall. A common, and somewhat comforting, belief holds that a court order is required to release that data. “By passively logging your location without your permission,” note the U.K. specialists, “Apple have made it possible for anyone from a jealous spouse to a private investigator to get a detailed picture of your movements.” Not to mention all those stalker nerds, techie skeeves and off-the-books government operatives who have nothing better to do than chart how many times you’ve dropped in at Chipotle in the past three months.

How to Know What the Nemesis Knows: Allan and Warden have developed an IPhone Tracker, an open source application that displays the information your iPhone is compiling about your movements. Your tracks are mapped out from files that Apple has hidden on your computer.

How to Negate the Nemesis: Rent a silver DeLorean and drive it very rapidly in reverse. Seriously, you can choose to encrypt backups, which will hamper snoopers from accessing your travels. The data will still be in your beautifully designed object.

Who Loves the Nemesis: Not the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which has accused the Michigan State Police of searching motorists’ smart phones during routine traffic stops to access contacts, pictures, texts and geo-location data. Some people—conspiracy theorists and Luddites among them—feel this search is a violation of the Fourth Amendment. Those are no-longer-relevant people, from a day when the typical American could quote the Fourth Amendment without researching it on an iPhone.

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