Last Updated on April 20, 2011
The news of the day is undoubtedly the discovery that Apple devices are a bit ‘too nosy’ and regularly record the position of the device into a hidden (!!) unencrypted and unprotected file.
The unwelcome and serendipitous discovery, which was announced today at Where 2.0, has been performed by two researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, while they were working on a project concerning visualization of Mobile Data. It looks like this unrequested feature has been introduced since the arrival of iOS 4.0 and allows the locations and their relative time stamps to be written on an easily accessible file on the device and, even worse, backed up on every PC the device has been synchronized with.
Even if the purpose of the file is unknown (at least so far), and would be appropriate to wait a reply from Apple (if any) before coming to any conclusion, this event, once again, brings to the fore privacy issues for mobile devices, strictly related to the security model for these devices, and, more in general, to the cultural approach and revolution users must face (and get used to) when dealing with mobile technologies.
For sure the main issue here is the lack of respect by Cupertino towards the users (customers?). We know that this is not the first time that a mobile applications attracts criticism for the use of private data (think for instance to the affair of Google Latitude). In the case of Apple Equipment (differently from the creature of Google) the user may not explicitly approve the sharing (would be better to say the tracking since there is no evidence of sharing so far) of his data. But even if we do not consider the ethic point of view, from a security perspective the event has a devastating impact: if the file containing the data may be easily accessed, this means that, in case of theft, could be quite easy, for a malicious user, to grab the data and reconstruct the habits of the users. If we think, for instance, to industrial espionage, this occurence has a dramatic consequence enhanced by the evidence that this kind of devices are often used by CxOs. (Who are the most targeted by the risks of consumerization of IT, of which this is yet another example).
Moreover, in most circumstances I discussed the risks of geolocation (and its correlation with users’ habits) and the importance that this data could have if massively stolen (for instance by mean of a Mobile Botnet) by Cybercrooks and conveyed to a C&C Server. In a similar scenario bad guys capable of stealing such a similar amount of data would have no difficulty at all to organize an auction “to the death” between hungry marketing agencies, which would pay gold to put their hand on them. I must admit that the thought that these “bad boys” could be just the manufacturers of my iPhone (luckily I own an Android) does not make me feel very comfortable. This situation is also paradoxical: many security vendors offer privacy advisors for (other) mobile platforms, but the evidence that one user should defend his privacy from the manufacturer itself sounds absurd and frustrating. Of course I continue to repeat that it is better to wait for an Apple official reply, but, honestly speaking the fact that these data are only available for devices provided with a cellular plan, sounds very strange.
Meanwhile, if you want to know more and enjoy (I hope so) to verify where have you been since you bought your brand new iToy, you may have a really interesting look at this link where the authors of the discovery posted an app to unleash the file and graphically map the positions.
Last but not least, there is no evidece (so far), of a similar “Feature” on the Droids.
On the other hand, these are tough times for the privacy of smartphones owners. As a matter of fact, quite curiously, today another, apparently unrelated, piece of news coming from the opposite site of the Ocean caught my attention. It concerns Michigan State Police, which has been using data extraction tools to collect information from the cell phones of motorists detained for minor traffic infractions. This has been possible by mean of Cellebrite, a mobile Forensics Tool capable to perform:
“Complete extraction of existing, hidden, and deleted phone data, including call history, text messages, contacts, images, and geotags. The Physical Analyzer allows visualization of both existing and deleted locations on Google Earth. In addition, location information from GPS devices and image geotags can be mapped on Google Maps,”
Even if the latter issue raises the question concerning to what extent the law can go when facing privacy of the citizens, the two news have in common the (mis)use of mobile data and I could not help but thinking that mobile data are continuously under attack and users should consequently consider carefully the usage of their devices (this is the reason why I used the term of cultural revolution).
Who knows, maybe Michigan State Police hoped to make further fines for speeding after detaining the motorists by tracking GPS position and timestamps. Probably if they had known the existence of the above mentioned feature of iOS, they would have avoided to buy the software and grab directly the data… At least for iOS 4 users…