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Apple Activates the Reality Distortion Field: The iPhone Isn't Tracking You. Really! [Update]

Last Updated Apr 27, 2011 4:52 PM EDT

You know things are bad in the Apple (AAPL) ecosystem when the company tries to explain its side of some controversy. The latest Apple reality distortion field targets the exploding location-tracking controversy.

If anything could put Apple -- and Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT) -- on the defensive, it's the way privacy, a topic that much of high tech thought it could safely ignore, has turned into a PR hand grenade. With the pin pulled. At this point, explanations are too little too late, and chances are growing that the wireless industry will end up with regulation on their hands. Still, Apple hopes the Cupertino HypnoRay will save the day.

But that's silly. Maybe if this had been the first privacy issue to surface, Apple might have had a chance with obfuscation. But, for years, tech companies have ignored warnings about cavalier treatment of user privacy:
And now Congress deepens its location tracking investigation. Just what did Apple, Google, and Microsoft think would happen when they decided to track locations? That no one outside of their companies had the skills or intelligence to notice?

At least Google and Microsoft have admitted they were tracking. Apple, on the other hand, indulges itself in solipsistic reality distortion, assuming that spin will fix all. The company has the gall to state, "Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," only to follow with this statement:
The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it's maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone's location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.
In other words, even if the Wall Street Journal is wrong about iPhones transmitting data to Apple, the company does store data to calculate where you are. Apple downloads data for calculating location to each iPhone, which means it must know roughly where you are to send the appropriate data.

And, by the way, that year's worth of data cached on your iPhone doesn't really contain past locations. It's just the locations of all the Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers that surround you. That's like saying, "We don't know exactly where you are, only what building you're in."

And what of the continued updates of that location data, even if you've turned off location services? Oh, sorry, yet another Apple system software bug that somehow got through the company's rigorous development and testing processes. You know, just like the mistake that made signal strength on an iPhone look higher than it actually was. Only, in this case, Apple doesn't have AT&T (T) to blame.

[Update: So much for that "bug." Ryan Tate at Gawker remembered a 2009 Apple patent application called Location Histories for Location Aware Devices. Given that John Gruber at Daring Fireball, with its notably well-connected Apple sources, has floated the idea that the historic location data was supposed to be culled but wasn't due to a bug, you could make an educated guess that this is the explanation Apple's trying to fly. But the patent squashes that like a prematurely hatched moth. Clearly keeping an ongoing record of location data was Apple's intent from the start. Would I love to hear how company representatives dance around the questions they're likely to get in Congress over this spin.]

Related: Image: moregueFile user pschubert, site standard license.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.