Apple Addresses iPhone 11 Location Privacy Concern

Apple is rolling out a new update to its iOS operating system that addresses the location privacy issue on iPhone 11 devices that was first detailed here last month.

Beta versions of iOS 13.3.1 include a new setting that lets users disable the “Ultra Wideband” feature, a short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature.

In December, KrebsOnSecurity pointed out the new iPhone 11 line queries the user’s location even when all applications and system services are individually set never to request this data.

Apple initially said the company did not see any privacy concerns and that the location tracking icon (a small, upward-facing arrow to the left of the battery icon) appears for system services that do not have a switch in the iPhone’s settings menu.

Apple later acknowledged the mysterious location requests were related to the inclusion of an Ultra Wideband chip in iPhone 11, Pro and Pro Max devices.

The company further explained that the location information indicator appears because the device periodically checks to see whether it is being used in a handful of countries for which Apple hasn’t yet received approval to deploy Ultra Wideband.

Apple also stressed it doesn’t use the UWB feature to collect user location data, and that this location checking resided “entirely on the device.” Still, it’s nice that iPhone 11 users will now have a disable the feature if they want.

Spotted by journalist Brandon Butch and published on Twitter last week, the new toggle switch to turn off UWB now exists in the “Networking & Wireless” settings in beta versions of iOS 13.3.1, under Locations Services > System Services. Beta versions are released early to developers to help iron out kinks in the software, and it’s not clear yet when 13.3.1 will be released to the general public.

The iPhone 11’s U1 chip necessitates constant geolocation checks, Apple says

Multiple smartphones on table.

Enlarge / From left to right: iPhone 11, iPhone 11 Pro, iPhone 11 Pro Max.
Samuel Axon

Earlier this week, security reporter Brian Krebs published a story explaining that Apple’s latest iPhones (iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro) periodically check the user’s location even if the user disables location services individually for each and every app and service in the iPhone’s Settings app.

While this behavior ended when the user disabled location services system-wide, it was a bit of a head-scratcher. What was the iPhone doing and why? Was it sending this information to Apple? Why couldn’t users find information on what was happening? Krebs had notified Apple of the issue as a potential security problem back in mid November, but the company responded this week stating:

We do not see any actual security implications… It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled. The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings.

While Apple deemed this not to be a security issue, Krebs rightly pointed out that it remained a potential privacy issue, given Apple’s promises that users have control over how and when iPhones track or report their locations.

Will Strafach, founder and CEO of the company behind the Guardian firewall app for iOS, looked into the issue and tweeted that it seemed likely that the location data associated with these events wasn’t leaving the device. But he still couldn’t explain exactly what was happening. This was his tweet:

FWIW, tried to dig into this and replicate.

it is very likely that it is something locally which does not have an exposed switch, no evidence of data sent to remote servers.

begs the question: why does Apple not answer for this directly?

Well, as of today Apple has answered for it directly. In a statement to TechCrunch’s Zack Whittaker, Apple explained:

Ultra-wideband technology is an industry-standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations… iOS uses Location Services to help determine if iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable ultra-wideband and comply with regulations… The management of ultra-wideband compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device, and Apple is not collecting user location data.

When Apple introduced the iPhone 11 and iPhone 11 Pro this fall, it included a new chip called the U1 that enables ultra-wideband (UWB) for locating other devices in immediate proximity. Presently, it is only used for the phone’s AirDrop file-sharing feature, but it is expected to be used for other features such as augmented reality and the company’s rumored upcoming Tile competitor in the future.

The brief flash of controversy on Twitter and tech blogs over this issue illustrates the challenges Apple faces with its privacy-oriented marketing. When the company attempts to position itself as the privacy-friendly alternative to data-collecting competitors, it invites a great deal of scrutiny—and users are right to be hawkish, given their experiences not just with Apple’s competitors but with Apple in the past.

It also adds to the mystery surrounding Apple’s inclusion of the U1. In today’s space- and power-cramped iPhones, Apple doesn’t introduce new components lightly. It recently even removed the hardware for 3D Touch, once a heralded feature, apparently to make room for more battery capacity.

Curiously, Apple has not only introduced this new chip but a new regular location check-in to facilitate it, without using said chip for any major features yet. We’ll have to wait to see what the company’s future plans for UWB technology are. In the meantime, be aware that your iPhone will check your location periodically even if you haven’t given any individual apps or services permission to do so, though it appears the location data does not leave your device.

Also note that this is not the only circumstance in which the iPhone locates you without prompting. For example, when you have location services enabled, your iPhone may scan for nearby Wi-Fi networks and cell phone towers and send anonymized information about them to Apple to improve other users’ wireless performance when they’re in the same location.

Apple told TechCrunch that it plans to add a new user-accessible toggle for the UWB-related behavior in an upcoming software update.

Apple Explains Mysterious iPhone 11 Location Requests

KrebsOnSecurity ran a story this week that puzzled over Apple‘s response to inquiries about a potential privacy leak in its new iPhone 11 line, in which the devices appear to intermittently seek the user’s location even when all applications and system services are individually set never to request this data. Today, Apple disclosed that this behavior is tied to the inclusion of a short-range technology that lets iPhone 11 users share files locally with other nearby phones that support this feature, and that a future version of its mobile operating system will allow users to disable it.

I published Tuesday’s story mainly because Apple’s initial and somewhat dismissive response — that this was expected behavior and not a bug — was at odds with its own privacy policy and with its recent commercials stating that customers should be in full control over what they share via their phones and what their phones share about them.

But in a statement provided today, Apple said the location beaconing I documented in a video was related to Ultra Wideband technology that “provides spatial awareness allowing iPhone to understand its position relative to other Ultra Wideband enabled devices (i.e. all new iPhone 11s, including the Pro and Pro Max).

Ultra-wideband (a.k.a UWB) is a radio technology that uses a very low energy level for short-range, high-bandwidth communications of a large portion of the radio spectrum without interfering with more conventional transmissions.

“So users can do things like share a file with someone using AirDrop simply by pointing at another user’s iPhone,” Apple’s statement reads. The company further explained that the location information indicator (a small, upward-facing arrow to the left of the battery icon) appears because the device periodically checks to see whether it is being used in a handful of countries for which Apple hasn’t yet received approval to deploy Ultra Wideband.

“Ultra Wideband technology is an industry standard technology and is subject to international regulatory requirements that require it to be turned off in certain locations,” the statement continues. “iOS uses Location Services to help determine if iPhone is in these prohibited locations in order to disable Ultra Wideband and comply with regulations. The management of Ultrawide Band compliance and its use of location data is done entirely on the device and Apple is not collecting user location data.”

Apple’s privacy policy says users can disable all apps and system services that query the user’s location all at once by toggling the main “Location Services” option to “off.” Alternatively, it says, users can achieve the same results by individually turning off all System Services that use location in the iPhone settings.

What prompted my initial inquiry to Apple about this on Nov. 13 was that the location services icon on the iPhone 11 would reappear every few minutes even though all of the device’s individual location services had been disabled.

“It is expected behavior that the Location Services icon appears in the status bar when Location Services is enabled,” Apple stated in their initial response. “The icon appears for system services that do not have a switch in Settings” [emphasis added].

Now we know more about at least one of those services. Apple says it plans to include the option of a dedicated toggle in System Services to disable the UWB activity in an upcoming update of its iOS operating system, although it didn’t specify when that option might be available.

The one head-scratcher remaining is that the new iPhone seems to check whether it’s in a country that allows UWB fairly frequently, even though the list of countries where this feature is not yet permitted is fairly small, and includes Argentina, Indonesia and Paraguay. A complete list of countries where iPhones can use UWB is here. The principal remaining concern may be that these periodic checks unnecessarily drain the iPhone 11’s battery.

It is never my intention to create alarm where none should exist; there are far too many real threats to security and privacy that deserve greater public attention and scrutiny from the news media. However, Apple does itself and its users no favors when it takes weeks to respond (or not, as my colleague Zack Whittaker at TechCrunch discovered) to legitimate privacy concerns, and then does so in a way that only generates more questions.