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Location data found by researchers in a hidden file tracking the movements of an iPhone user. (Image: O'Reilly Radar)

Apple is finally addressing criticism of location-based tracking technologies in the iPhone, a response that comes a week after the controversy broke. In a lengthy FAQ, Apple writes that it does not track the specific location of iPhone users but admits that the issues are “very complex” and “are hard to communicate in a soundbite.”

In essence, the company said that it is tracking nearby cell towers and Wi-Fi hotspots in order to assist users when they need to know their whereabouts.

Apple also said that it plans to fix a “bug” in the iPhone which compiles nearby Wi-Fi and cell tower data even when location services are turned off by the user.

Here’s a more meaty explanation of what Apple says it is collecting:

The iPhone is not logging your location. Rather, it’s maintaining a database of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers around your current location, some of which may be located more than one hundred miles away from your iPhone, to help your iPhone rapidly and accurately calculate its location when requested. Calculating a phone’s location using just GPS satellite data can take up to several minutes. iPhone can reduce this time to just a few seconds by using Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data to quickly find GPS satellites, and even triangulate its location using just Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data when GPS is not available (such as indoors or in basements). These calculations are performed live on the iPhone using a crowd-sourced database of Wi-Fi hotspot and cell tower data that is generated by tens of millions of iPhones sending the geo-tagged locations of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers in an anonymous and encrypted form to Apple.

The location tracking issue gained momentum last week after two researchers, Alasdair Allan and Pete Warden, brought the problem to light.

Wired notes that two iPhone customers have already sued Apple over the location issues.

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