How Long Was the iPhone Location Vulnerability Known?

I’m very intrigued by the Guardian’s piece iPhone keeps record of everywhere you go | Technology | guardian.co.uk but I’m wondering how new this information is, and whether other less transparent folk have already been using this gaping hole. Charles Arthur writes:

Security researchers have discovered that Apple‘s iPhone keeps track of where you go – and saves every detail of it to a secret file on the device which is then copied to the owner’s computer when the two are synchronised.

The file contains the latitude and longitude of the phone’s recorded coordinates along with a timestamp, meaning that anyone who stole the phone or the computer could discover details about the owner’s movements using a simple program.

For some phones, there could be almost a year’s worth of data stored, as the recording of data seems to have started with Apple’s iOS 4 update to the phone’s operating system, released in June 2010.

But it seems that folk on a forum have already been talking about it since January: Convert Iphone 4 Consolidated.db file to Google earth:

Someone called Gangstageek asked on Jan 6:

Is there a way to, or a program (for the PC) that can read the Consolidated.db file from the Iphone 4 backup folder and accurately translate the cell locations and timestamps into Google earth?

Other forum members helped him out. Indeed, an earlier forum, from November 2010, looked at the same file. kexan wrote on Nov 26:

We are currently investigating an iphone used during a crime, and we have extracted the geopositions located within consilidated.db for analysis. During this we noticed that multiple points have the same unix datestamp. We are unsure what to make of this. Its kind of impossible to be on several locations at once, and the points are sometimes all over town.

Going back even further, Paul Courbis wrote on his site (translated from the French), including a demo:

Makes it relatively easy to draw the data on a card to get an idea of ​​places visited by the owner of the iPhone..

I don’t have an iPhone so I’ve not been able to test this. But I’m guessing that this issue may have already been known for some time by some kind of folk. Indeed, there are tools in use by police and others that may have already exploited this kind of vulnerability.

Telling the Story in the Third Dimension

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The bitter end of the Tamil Tigers has been fought away from the news crews, but not the satellites.

But did we make the most of this technology to tell the story of human suffering and the end of a 35-year guerrilla movement?

A month ago the U.S. government released satellite images apparently showing how tens of thousands of Sri Lankan civilians had been squeezed into the last tract land held by the LTTE, a story covered somewhat cursorily by the media. This three paragraph piece from The Guardian, for example:

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A week ago (May 12) Human Rights Watch issued its own report based on images it had commissioned from commercial satellites. The photos, the organisation said, “contradict Sri Lankan government claims that its armed forces are no longer using heavy weapons in the densely populated conflict area.”

The full report was available as a preliminary analysis, downloadable in PDF.

The report was carried by the BBC and others.

But I could find no one who had dug into the report to find a way to bring this remote tragedy closer to home.

For example, it could be as simple as double checking the images and coordinates given against Google Earth (easy enough; just enter the lat/long digits into Google Earth and see where they take you. HRW could have done a better job of providing the full coordinates here, to the full six decimal places–9.317999, for example—rather than the meager two they gave: 9.32.)

But a much better way of presenting the data lurks in a link on page four. Click on the link, and, if you’ve got Google Earth installed, the KML file (a KML file is a XML-based way of expressing geographic information that can be read by programs like Google Earth) will load a layer that tells the grim story in a different way.

The first is the most recent picture from Google Earth, dated 2005. As you can see, very little human habitation (click on each image to enlarge).

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The one below is from May 6. A dense city has appeared in the meantime, with its own streets:

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Four days later, most of it is gone:

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Toggling between these images in Google Earth is a sobering experience. Of course, such imagery does not explain what exactly happened to these people, but it asks tougher questions than any talking head can. And yet CNN chose to focus on that, and on familiar footage of the war.

My point is this: we’re now in a world of three dimensions. We journalists can see things our predecessors couldn’t.

If I was an editor I would have mined that HRW report until I’d found a way to use their imagery to tell the story. Buried in that single, 50 KB KML file is a wealth of detail:

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Which could have been used as time lapse, or juxtaposed over a map like the one the BBC used for its report:

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The bottom line: We as journalists need to understand this kind of thing better so we know what is possible, what is doable, and, if nothing else, to be able to know that when we see a link to a KML file, we may be on the way to a treasure trove of information to help us tell the story.

Reforestation, Google Earth Style

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Here’s a very cool way to mix technology and environmental stuff, via the Google Earth Blog. (Interest declared: It’s part of the NEWtrees project, the brainchild of my publisher and friend Mark Hanusz):

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) offers you the opportunity to buy a tree which will be planted in a rainforest in Sebangau National Forest in Central Kalimantan, Indonesia. In return, they not only plant the tree, but give you a Google Earth KML file in return with the location coordinates of your tree. Theoretically, as Google continues to update with higher resolution satellite and aerial imagery, you should be able to watch the growth of your tree (and the others who donate trees) over the coming years. To get started, you simply go to the web site mybabytree.org. They have a very cute animation that will guide you through the process, and you can use Paypal to make your donation. You can see the location and list of trees purchased so far here . Borneo is another location, like the Amazon, where rain forests are disappearing due to logging at a freightening pace. I hope WWF will extend the concept to the rapidly declining rain forests in the Amazon.

Why’s this so good? Because it leverages straightforward technology — GPS, Google Earth — to make the global significant on an individual scale. I remember when I was a kid my dad planted a tree for me in Northampton as part of a local Men of the Trees project (now the International Tree Foundation). Sadly the project was bulldozed to make way for a bypass, but hopefully that’s not likely to happen in Kalimantan. Certainly I could relate a lot more to one tree than a forest.

 

Google Earth Blog: Buy a Tree for the Rainforest – Get a KML

Google’s New Interface: The Earth

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I’ve written before about how I think Google Earth, or something like it, will become a new form of interface — not just for looking for places and routes, but any kind of information. Some people call it the geo-web, but it’s actually bigger than that. Something like Google Earth will become an environment in its own right. I can imagine people using it to slice and dice company data, set up meetings, organize social networks.

Google is busy marching in this direction, and their newest offering is a great example of this: Google Book Search. This from Brandon Badger, product manager at Google Earth:

Did you ever wonder what Lewis and Clark said about your hometown as they passed through? What about if any other historical figures wrote about your part of the world? Earlier this year, we announced a first step toward geomapping the world’s literary information by starting to integrate information from Google Book Search into Google Maps. Today, the Google Book Search and Google Earth teams are excited to announce the next step: a new layer in Earth that allows you to explore locations through the lens of the world’s books.

Activating the layer peppers the earth with little yellow book icons — all over the place, like in this screenshot from Java:

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Click on one of the books and the reference will pop up, including the title of the book, its cover, author, number of pages etc, as well as the actual context of the reference. Click on a link to the page

Is it perfect? No. It’s automated, so a lot of these references are just wrong. Click on a yellow book in Borneo and you find a reference in William Gilmore Simms’ “Life of Francis Marrion” to Sampit, which is the name of a town there, but it’s likely confused with the river of the same name in South Carolina.

Many of the books in Google’s database are scanned, so errors are likely to arise from imperfect OCR. Click on a book above the Java town of Kudus, and you get a reference to a History of France, and someone called “Ninon da f Kudus”, which in fact turns out to be the caption for an illustration of Le Grand Dauphin and Ninon de l’Enclos, a French C17 courtesan.

But who cares? By being able to click on the links you can quickly find out whether the references are accurate or not, and I’m guessing Google is going to gradually tidy this up, if not themselves then by allowing us users to correct such errors. (So far there doesn’t seem to be a way to do this.)

This is powerful stuff, and a glimpse of a new way of looking, storing and retrieving information. Plus it’s kind of fun.

Google LatLong: Google Book Search in Google Earth

Escape to Streetlevel

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Next up: cities you can drive through, and not from above, or fake worlds where everyone has big chests. Real cities, from all angles. It’s called EveryScape.

The company calls it “the world’s first interactive eye-level search that offers Web users a totally immersive world on the Internet.” A “virtual experience of all metropolitan, suburban and rural areas in which visitors can share their stories and opinions about real-life daily experiences against a photo-realistic backdrop ranging from streets and cities, communities, restaurants, schools, real estate and the like.” Yes, I’m not crazy about the lingo, but the idea is a cool one: Just try the preview of San Francisco’s Union Square.

Using a Flash-enabled browser you move through the terrain and ground level (in the middle of the street), and then can tilt your view through all angles. You can click on certain markers for more information, or enter certain buildings. You “window shop storefronts as well as tour the inside of those stores, see their offerings, and access published reviews and other information.” You can add content such as “relevant links, personal reviews, rankings” and things like “a “For Rent” sign and an apartment tour.”

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Putting the stuff together doesn’t sound as hard as you would expect. EveryScape’s HyperMedia Technology Platform means anyone with an SLR camera can take pictures and upload them; EveryScape hopes to tap “into local communities and users to assist in building out a visual library of content that will cover the entire world.” A sort of Google Earth at ground level.

Great idea, though of course you can imagine there’ll be a lot of commercial elements to all this. It’s hard to imagine ordinary Joes allowed to plaster streets with their virtual graffiti or anything else that gets in the way of advertising opportunities. The only other concern I have off the top of my head is that Google Earth made some of us wonder whether, after seeing every corner of the globe from a bird’s wing, we’d feel the same urge to travel. Now, after wandering the virtual streets of San Francisco, would we lose our wanderlust?

EveryScape plans to launch 10 U.S. metropolitan areas this year.

Crash Maps

Another intriguing use of Google Earth: to map statistical likelihood of car crashes, from Ohio State University. Interesting stuff, though it doesn’t explore what I think is the key factor in crashes: unpredictability. In a place like the UK everyone follows strict rules (supposedly), so any deviation is unpredictable and therefore likely to cause an accident. In a place like Indonesia the only predictable element is that drivers won’t be predictable, so other drivers allow for odd behavior. Statistically, there should be many more crashes in a place like Jakarta than there are. Why? Because everyone knows other drivers will do weird things, and so they’re ready for them.

What makes this model novel is that scientists have now combined the statistical software with Google Earth–a program that offers an interactive map of the entire globe–to map the results as color-coded lines. Google Earth is able to perform this function because it reads the output from the statistical model in KML files; much as a Web browser reads HTML files, the KML files tell the program where on the planet to draw lines or place images, explains Holloman.

News on a Map

A great example of finding more interesting and informative ways of presenting news: Daden Consulting’s NewsGlobe (via Google Earth Blog and Bleeding Edge) :

It takes the stories from an RSS news feed, then checks the words in each story title against a list of countries and cities on the Earth. Any matches will result in placemark being placed on GoogleEarth, along with the news item title. You can then click on the placemark to read the summary, then then click through to the original story.

I like it. I think this kind of thing will become standard on news sites in the future as news organisations realise the day of the simple headline and story is dead.

Google Earth — So Impressive, So Depressing

Google Moon is now up and running. Is it only I who finds Google Earth electrifying and yet somewhat depressing, and disturbing?

The idea of being able to zoom into street level is amazing. The technology is extraordinary. Wonderful. It’s one of those moments when you get a real buzz, as if life has just been jolted a yard or two down the track in one second. But now I can’t go outside without thinking how many satellites might be tracking me, or wondering whether there is any place on earth that can’t be visible from space.

It’s awe-inspiring to put little markers in the map and then zoom from one corner of the world to the next, from my family home in the UK to the hotel I’m in in Hong Kong, to the actual rock on Lamma I was sitting on last week. Amazing. But at the same time seeing a journey that takes a day or two reduced to a zippy flyover is somewhat deflating. What happened the mystery of travel? Why travel the globe if you can zip around it on your computer?

The whole zooming out into space and then back is fun, too. But at the same time all it does is remind us how insignificant we are. Little blips. And yet, zooming over the planet from my house to your house also seems to make the planet a lot smaller, and not necessarily in a nice way.

I guess part of me hoped the planet would still be big enough to satisfy a couple more generations’ wanderlust, but now technology is, brilliantly but relentlessly, making everything smaller, easier to find, easier to reach. You’ve got to wonder whether traveler Michael Palin and his ilk (and he still has a few ilks) are a dying breed. Have Google and GPS buried the intrepid explorer?

I hope not.