Apple iPhone Collects Location Data Even If Turned Off, Warns Krebs

Apple's iPhone 11 Pro. Image credit: Apple

Flagship iPhone 11 Pro will track a user’s location, even when location settings are turned off, researcher warns. Apple promises change

Apple is at the centre of a location data issue after its flagship iPhone 11 Pro device was found to collect user data, even if settings were turned off.

The discovery was made by security researcher and journalist Brian Krebs, who noted “one of the more curious behaviours of Apple’s new iPhone 11 Pro is that it intermittently seeks the user’s location information even when all applications and system services on the phone are individually set to never request this data.”

Apple has responded and said this was by design and is tied to the inclusion of a new short-range technology that users to share files locally with other nearby phones that have the same capability.

Location tracking

But this seems to be at odds with Apple’s privacy policy, noted Krebs. He said the privacy policy explains users can disable all location services entirely with one swipe (by navigating to Settings > Privacy > Location Services, then switching “Location Services” to “off”).

“When one does this, the location services indicator – a small diagonal upward arrow to the left of the battery icon – no longer appears unless Location Services is re-enabled,” he noted.

But he warned that with the iPhone 11 Pro (and possibly other iPhone 11 models), there are some system services 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.

Krebs said that on 13 November he contacted Apple to report this as a possible privacy bug in the new iPhone Pro and/or in iOS 13.x.

A video of the issue can be found here.

Apple apparently responded and initially said it does not see any concerns here and that the iPhone was performing as designed.

“We do not see any actual security implications,” an Apple engineer wrote in a response to KrebsOnSecurity. “It is expected behaviour that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled. The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings” [emphasis added].

Apple then responded in more detail on 5 December.

“Apple disclosed today that this behaviour is tied to the inclusion of a new short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature, and that a future version of its mobile operating system will allow users to disable it,” Krebs wrote.

Other issues

This is not the first time that there has been concern over location tracking.

In 2018, Google was accused of misleading about location tracking, after consumer groups from seven European nations asked their privacy regulators to take action against the search engine giant.

In August 2018 an investigation by the Associated Press found that a number of Google services running on Android and Apple devices determine the user’s location and store it, even when Google’s “Location History” setting is switched off.

Google was soon slapped with a lawsuit in the United States for allegedly tracking phone users regardless of privacy settings.

Quiz: How well do you know Apple?

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Author: Tom Jowitt
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