This story broke a few days ago and is causing quite a kerfuffle. Apparently there is a small database file that stores every location you've ever been to with your iPhone/iPad 3G. The file is uploaded to Apple on a regular basis and is backed up to your computer every time you sync the device.
And Google does something similar with Android phones. Apparently the difference is that the iPhone keeps the location information seemingly forever, the Android phones keeps it for a fixed number of days then I guess it overwrites the oldest info.
Apple claims that it is there to 'improve the user experience', but when you get down to it, it's going to be used to better target advertising and better relate geographic activities available.
Part of the outcry is that 'Apple is tracking your every move!' How does Apple benefit from knowing where I am at any given time? They don't in the specific, they do in the aggregate. They can't sell advertising based on one person's movement, they can in the aggregate. At the same time Apple/Google is tracking your movement, so is your cell carrier. They know precisely where you are whenever your phone is turned on, and it is logged and archived for a long time. Look at what happens if there is a murder investigation: law enforcement subpoenas cell provider records, and they can geomap your whereabouts before, during, and after the murder. I used to work for a taxi company, and our system tracked every car's movement with GPS lat/long coordinates, and we could geomap and timestamp a vehicle's movements to the point of seeing them drive around the block, we did this occasionally when customers called in complaints.
And since the table is backed up every time you sync your phone, if someone steals your laptop, they can know where you go! I think this is kind of a silly argument. If someone steals your laptop, unless they are a government agency or involved in corporate espionage, why would they care? They want the value of the laptop that they can sell it for. I have a password on my laptop, and I'm considering encryption, so I'm not too concerned about it. And theoretically if they steal or find your phone, they can track your location! But it's easy to lock an iPhone and program it to self-destruct the data if the correct code is not entered in X attempts. There's also software via MobileMe that will track your phone's location and allow you to remotely lock it or wipe it.
And it just came out that if you have a Mac and use Apple's Safari browser, it also tracks location data there.
So your cell phone company has the location info, your cell phone maker has less precise location info. How important is it?
I really don't know. The data in the iPhone is stored in a SQLLite database. I'm wondering if you could open a SQLLite program, open the database, zero the contents, and then restore the phone from the backup, thus zeroing the data on the phone.
I think that we'll probably see Congress writing some letters to Mr. Jobs asking for an explanation, and it wouldn't surprise me if in a couple of months there's an iOS update that has better geolocation opt-out features. Regardless, your cell provider will always track your location, they're legally required to for emergency 911 services.
Oh, and if you're interested, there's an app that you can download for the iPhone that will read this table and geomap it, so you can see where it has tracked your location.
Myself, I don't own an iPhone yet, supposedly the iPhone 5 will launch later this year, probably August-ish. I'll look at them at that point and get either a 4 or 5. I don't think I'm particularly concerned at this point, especially since you're always going to be tracked by your cell carrier. It's going to be used to target advertising, something that I'm very good at ignoring, it's just another one of life's little annoyances.http://www.wired.com/gadgetlab/2011/04/iphone-location/
NPR also has a story on this: (heck, all sorts of sites have stories on this)http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2011/04/20/135570632/researchers-apples-iphone-keeps-track-of-every-little-place-you-go
Yes, you can turn off location tracking in your phone's preferences, but it doesn't really disable this particular thing. The option just prevents applications from accessing location info, and it's questionable if it actually does that.