Apple patent app shows plans for location data

It's not clear if the patent is related to the recent discovery of stored location history on iPhones and iPads

A recently published Apple patent application indicates the company may have plans to collect iPhone user location history but it's not clear if the patent application is related to the recent discovery that iPhones and iPads store historical location information.

Last week researchers from O'Reilly showed that iPhones and iPads regularly collect location information, storing the data in an unencrypted file on the devices. Apple has not commented on why the devices collect and store such information. Users and lawmakers have expressed concern that the data is being collected without user permission.

A patent application filed by an Apple engineer in 2009 and published in March shows that the company has ideas for ways to use similar types of location history data. Gawker noticed the application on Monday.

Entitled "location histories for location aware devices" and filed by Apple engineer Ronald Huang, the patent application describes various ways for devices to collect location information including via GPS, the cellular network and Wi-Fi access points. It then describes storing the data locally and presenting it on a map for users.

But because the O'Reilly researchers don't know exactly what is the source of the location data that the phones have been storing, it's difficult to say if that data is intended to be used in a similar fashion as described in the patent application. The files the O'Reilly researchers found show location data that appears to be tied to nearby cell phone towers, as well as additional, unknown sources. The researchers also found the timing of the recording of the data is erratic, noting that it could be triggered by traveling between cells or activity on the phones.

The Apple patent application includes ideas for ways that users can set preferences for collecting data in order to manage the size of the location information database. For instance, users could set the file not to record each day's travels to and from work, since the data would be the same each day. Through a user interface, users could also set times when the device should not record location data at all and also set preferences for how often the device should collect location data.

The patent application says that the data can be tied to an event, such as snapping a picture, making a financial transaction or receiving a phone call. That combined data could be integrated into a personal "journal" for users, according to the application.

That idea is reminiscent of Microsoft's Kin Studio, which laid out a user's phone activities, including photos, videos, texts and call histories into a visual timeline accessible online. Kin Studio, which was only available on the failed Kin phones, did not include location data, however.

Apple did not reply to a request for comment about the patent application.

Since the O'Reilly presentation, Apple and other developers of phones and phone software including Google have been the subject of scrutiny from lawmakers and users. While Apple has not commented on the matter, Google has said that it allows users to opt in to location services and that users can turn off such services at any time.

Nancy Gohring covers mobile phones and cloud computing for The IDG News Service. Follow Nancy on Twitter at @idgnancy. Nancy's e-mail address is Nancy_Gohring@idg.com

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Nancy Gohring

IDG News Service
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