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We Just Can’t Believe the Simple Answers

Well, the news came today that, despite congressional investigations and lawsuits to address all those inflammatory allegations about what Apple’s “evil” data gathering operations are retrieving from you, Apple isn’t tracking your movements on your iPhone. At nearly the same time, the White House released a so-called “long form” birth certificate showing, once again, that President Obama was born in Hawaii, and not in Kenya, Zeta Reticuli, or any other alien locale.

Now both issues, and loads of others, demonstrate that, when there’s a perceived lack of information, imaginations can go wild and easily manufacture conspiracy theories of all sorts. In the case of the President, his people released the standard computerized certificate of “Live Birth” long ago. It’s the same sort of birth certificate I received when I requested a copy last year, and it’s the same type of document my wife and son have in their possession. They are all regarded as legal proof of one’s birth in the U.S., thus entitling you to get a driver’s license, passport, or any similarly important document.

That’s all well and good, except if you’re a conspiracy theorist, and feel, without evidence, that you must demand more.

In the case of that notorious tracking cache file on your iPhone, it was uncovered recently by security researchers, and the issue has become important enough to influence Washington politicians, state legal authorities, and even form the basis of a lawsuit. Both Apple and Google were asked to explain what they know about you, and how they come by that information.

According to Apple’s rather dry and detailed question and answer document on the iPhone tracking issue, the data basically shows the locations of network access points, be they cell phone towers, or Wi-Fi stations. Your credit card information, bank account access, and other personal information that you want to protect, is not stored in that file. More to the point, whatever information Apple does retrieve is stored anonymously, meaning it can’t possibly be traced back to you.

The real issue, however, is that the tracking file was present even if you shut off the Location feature. That, Apple admits, is a bug that they intend to fix in the near future. What’s more the cache file will be restricted to just seven days, and will contain less data of your iPhone’s movements during that time. The tracking file will not be backed up, and a future reference release of the iOS will even encrypt that file.

Now shorn of all the privacy concerns, having your iPhone (or iPad connected to a 3G network) keep tabs of your location can be a good thing. Consider the plight of the police or emergency medical workers. Suppose you were seriously injured in an accident along a lonely country road, and you call 911 for help. You may be lost, not fully aware of where you are, but the E911 system will allow them to determine your location within a rough boundary. It could save your life.

Say you want to use a GPS program for navigation. It’s certainly cheaper than buying one of those new-fangled systems on a car, where even family autos may sport systems that can cost $2,000 or more. In order to guide you to your destination, both GPS and triangulation of your location via cell towers are employed to guide you along your way. Bear in mind that GPS is slow, the result of having to coordinate data from multiple satellites, and engage in back and forth communication with your mobile device. The iOS data cache helps speed up the process, and improves accuracy. You can’t argue with that.

Besides, Google just happens to storing data from your Android OS device. Just what are they doing with that information?

But I agree that, if you want to turn off Location monitoring on your iPhone, the process should be thorough. There should be no remnants of a data file hanging around, even if that file can’t provide any private information about you to a third party if they stole your iPhone or 3G-equipped iPad. Your family photos and stored passwords for online access are far more critical.

Now don’t forget that you can use Apple’s Find My iPhone feature, with works with MobileMe, to wipe your iPhone clean of data if its lost or stolen. That’s one sensible reason to want to track its whereabouts.

Sure, maybe Apple could have done a better job in alerting customers to what was going before the rampant speculation mounted, and the media made a big deal of the issue. Steve Jobs and two of his senior VPs, Philip Schiller and Scott Forstall, also addressed those issues in an interview at AllThingsDigital.

While I enjoy conspiracy theories as much as anyone — and we do cover them on occasion on The Paracast — I expect evidence ahead of speculation. It’s very easy to want to blame a certain multinational company, with the legendary “Walled Garden,” and the charismatic CEO who creates a “reality distortion field,” with invading your privacy for their personal gain. The facts may be boring, but they do appear to demonstrate that, once again, Apple is striving to be a good corporate citizen. They may make mistakes along the way, but they appear to want to do the right thing.