Big Steve Jobs is Watching You?

At the 2011 Where 2.0 conference, two geeks found something most iPad users couldn’t be bothered looking for – a tracking device.

One of the guys was Alasdair Allan. He spends his time watching the skies as a senior research fellow in astronomy at University of Exeter. His buddy, Pete Warden, may know what he’s talking about considering he was an Apple engineer for five years. There is a YouTube clip of the two lads chillaxin’ and chewing the fat about how Pete’s old boss is mysteriously collecting data on his customers using a “hidden file”, anonymously entitled consolidated.db. As they sat around a shared Macbook, they explained how the little file stores all location data of iPhone/Pad users since the iOS 4 upgrade in June 2010.[1] The conversation sounded like a couple of Trekkies who had found a continuity mistake in episode 12, season 4. Keep watching the skies, gentlemen.

The big reveal was followed by seven days of Apple silence on the matter. During that week, everyone but the Canadian Mounties was on Steve’s ass about this little file. Europeans were particularly interested: CNIL - the French data protection authority; The Italian Data Protection Authority; and The Bavarian Agency for the Supervision of Data Protection in Germany. Europe is a part of the world that still fights the good fight for privacy. In the States, two Democrats sent letters asking Steve to "please explain" [2] (One of the politicians was an ex-Saturday Night Live comedian).

Only a week before consolidated.db was exposed, Sony gave away the personal data, and probably credit cards, of 100 million+ customers. Meanwhile, the U.S Government continues to spy on the keywords used by its citizens in the ex cathedra name of national security. Even grocery store club cards collect data on what we buy. These are only the few intrusions we know about. The idea that any device belongs entirely to the owner was lost when internet cookies began slipping into the back rooms of our PCs during the ‘90s.

The fictional spy, Jason Bourne, is a popular hero because he eludes the surveillance that most of us have grown to tolerate. Jason dodges CCTV cams by losing himself in the crowd. He ducks in and out of anonymous internet cafes. He places calls using only a quaint old pay phone or a prepaid cell-phone bought with cash. 

Unless we're prepared to live like a black ops agent, it's difficult to be so connected without losing a piece of yourself. There's very real reason why the celluloid spy plucks out his sim card and crushes it under his boot-heel. It’s the same reason Osama Bin Laden’s compound allowed no mobile or internet connections (although U.S special ops found him anyway).

Steve is an easy target for tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists because he was the one who made such a big deal about fighting Big Brother back in 1984. However, our surveillance culture is not exactly what George Orwell envisioned. Our Big Brother didn’t happen to us. We let it happen to us. There is a palpable itchy feeling as we blindly click though without reading user-agreements the size of the Magna Carta (the Latin version, and just as convoluted). No time to read the fine print, we just want the thing to run, and run now.

Admittedly, there are proven benefits that our every move is stored on a drive somewhere, out there. It comes in handy when tracking your kid’s location when they should be in class, or finding the nearest Starbucks. This may outweigh the little annoyances like Starbucks offering you a discount every week, or The Terminator locating Sarah Connor. 

On the same day that President Obama was bullied into proving he was born on U.S soil, Steve took to the stage to prove he wasn’t Big Brother. Both men looked like they had better things to do. Steve said the iOS 4 upgrade cached location data to turbocharge telephony connections. This sounds reasonable enough after Judas phone copped so much flack for losing reception. Unfortunately, the cache was not programmed to purge after binging. This is a common coding error. How many of us regularly purge our email accounts of the dregs we don’t need anymore? Steve said he would reduce the location cache on the iOS to no more than a week, and delete the cache entirely when users turned off location services. Done and done.

The amusing money-quote was, “It took us about a week to do an investigation and write a response, which is fairly quick for something this technically complicated.”  A week seems like a long time to investigate a seemingly simple issue. The real explanation may have been this: his people took five minutes to trace the “hidden file” and then it took the rest of the week to explain it to Steve. This is a man who likes things simple. He won’t sign agreement with IBM more than a page long, and he didn’t want a mouse or CD burner software with more than one button. 

The New York Times readers’ commentary on the subject was flame-fest between Apple haters and fan-boys. The most telling comments were:

"Track me all you want! I'm so boring my triangulation data would put most to sleep. When's iPad 3 coming out?"  

 "But, Steve Jobs majored in liberal arts! I expected better."

"Remember that you can not post on this thread without at least three organizations knowing your approximate location." [3]

[1] O’Reilly (2011, April 20) iPhone Tracking Discussion [video clip]. Retrieved from:

[2] Helft, M. & O’Brien, K. (2011, April 21) Inquiries Grow Over Apple’s Data Collection Practices. The New York Times.

[3] Helft, M. (2011, April 27) Jobs Says Apple Made Mistakes With iPhone Data. New York Times. Retrieved from:

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