Apple squashes location tracking bug with iOS 4.3.3 update

Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) issued its iOS 4.3.3 software update, which contains promised changes to the operating system's crowd-sourced location database cache. iOS 4.3.3--available via iTunes, and compatible with the iPhone 3GS and iPhone 4, the third- and fourth-generation iPod touch and the iPad and iPad 2--reduces the size of the location database cache from up to a year to about a week, halts cache backup to iTunes and deletes the cache entirely when users disable their device's Location Services feature.

iOS 4.3.3 follows on the heels of reports that devices running the iOS operating system store user location data in a hidden file--the new update fixes the software bug that Apple blames for cases where iPhones have cached as much as a year of location information. iOS 4.3.3 also arrives days before Apple and archrival Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) will testify at a Senate hearing on the subject of mobile phone privacy and location data collection: Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) said late last month that both Apple and Google will testify May 10 before the Senate Judiciary Committee's privacy subcommittee, headed by Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). Leahy said it is essential to have "complete and accurate information about the privacy implications of these new technologies."

The furor over location tracking exploded in April after British researchers Alisdair Allan and Pete Warden reported that iPhone and iPod devices had recorded location and time-stamp data since the mid-2010 release of the iOS 4 software update, effectively creating a comprehensive log of all user movement and activities during that time. Apple broke its silence on the matter several days later, explaining that iOS devices are in fact gathering location information to maintain a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in the user's vicinity, enabling an iPhone to more rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Apple added that calculating a phone's whereabouts via only GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes, while its approach can slash the process to a few seconds.

"Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone. Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so," the company said in a statement. "Apple is now collecting anonymous traffic data to build a crowd-sourced traffic database with the goal of providing iPhone users an improved traffic service in the next couple of years. Our iAds advertising system can use location as a factor in targeting ads. Location is not shared with any third party or ad unless the user explicitly approves giving the current location to the current ad (for example, to request the ad locate the Target store nearest them)."

In related headlines, Apple reportedly will introduce over-the-air software updates in conjunction with the upcoming launch of iOS 5, bringing the platform in line with rival mobile operating systems. Citing multiple sources with knowledge of Apple's plans, reports the computing giant will unveil OTA update functionality in iOS 5, meaning the new operating system itself won't arrive over-the-air but all subsequent iOS updates will. While most smartphones and connected devices have long enabled users to download software updates directly over the network without a hardware proxy, iOS products like the iPhone, iPod touch and iPad have long required consumers to plug the device into an iTunes-enabled computer to download and install new software releases.

According to, Apple is presently in talks with Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) to launch over-the-air iOS updates this fall, adding it is unknown whether Apple is also negotiating with AT&T (NYSE:T) and its international operator partners. The report adds that iOS updates now exceed 600MB, indicating Apple must decrease the size in order to persuade carriers to begin transmitting them over their speculates Apple will turn to smaller, incremental patches rather than full OS downloads.

Although Apple has historically issued new versions of iOS during the summer months alongside revamped iPhone devices, multiple sources indicate iOS 5 is on hold until the autumn, bringing with it a substantial platform makeover incorporating multiple cloud-based services. The new services are expected to include a "digital locker" solution enabling consumers to store their iTunes music, movie and television libraries on Apple servers for access on multiple iOS-based devices. Another likely wrinkle: A location-enabled friends and family finder tool.

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