Hidden Digital Records
News that the iPhone created a file with historical location data has been a significant news story the past few weeks. According to news reports in the United States and Europe, researchers announced towards the end of April 2011 that they had discovered a file created by the iPhone when it syncs with a user’s computer containing historical location data. An LA Times editorial captured the mood nicely:
"The most talked-about feature of Apple's iPhones and iPads these days isn't a clever new software application. It's a hidden digital record on every device of the locations where it has been used — a numerical travelogue that effectively traces its owner's movements by noting the times and places it has been used."
Credit for the discovery was claimed by Alasdair Allan, senior research fellow in astronomy at the University of Exeter, and writer Pete Warden. The original announcement of the discovery is, I think, here.
On a recent Lawyer2Lawyer Podcast, I suggested that law enforcement may have known about this file for some time.
Usually, law enforcement and national security agencies like to keep techniques quiet. I can’t rely on my personal experience with investigations because that is, of course, confidential. But I wanted to provide some links to reporting about this possibly long-standing use. In a PC Magazine article, one forensic examiner claims to have accessed the file “hundreds” of times for law enforcement investigations. An article by CNET also raised the possibility that law enforcement was aware of this file before, and had obtained information users through forensic analyses of their computers. And computer forensics expert interviewed by NPR stated, “I really don't see it as a problem, I see it as, you know, a bonus. We're making the life of law enforcement easier.”
The fact that law enforcement (somewhat) admits to having known about this long ago should make everyone wonder what else they know about that the public does not.