NEW YORK (Reuters) - Steve Jobs, responding to growing public pressure, broke Apple Inc’s silence on Wednesday to defend the iPhone’s use of location data and stressed that it had never tracked the movements of its customers.
Jobs, who is on medical leave, sought to control a firestorm that has broken out over whether Apple is monitoring the whereabouts of its customers, promising to adjust the mobile software to store less location data.
Jobs denied that it was tracking the movements of its iPhone customers during interviews with AllThingsD, a blog owned by News Corp, and others. He also said the company would look forward to testifying before Congress and other regulators.
Apple itself issued a similar denial on a day when privacy issues overshadowed news that it would begin selling a long-awaited white version of its marquee iPhone. Sales are due to begin on Thursday.
“Apple is not tracking the location of your iPhone,” the company said in a statement on Wednesday. “Apple has never done so and has no plans to ever do so.”
Still, Apple and Jobs, who is rarely seen or heard from these days, acknowledged that iPhones keep a database of nearby Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers. That information can then be used to help calculate location for applications such as maps.
At the moment, some of that location information is stored on each iPhone and is backed up in iTunes. This has raised concerns from privacy advocates, who say the process would make it possible, for instance, for someone with access to a person’s computer to retrieve information about their movements.
Apple said it planned to release a software update that would cut the size of the wireless hotspot location database stored on its iPhones, and stop backing up that information. The software will be released in the next few weeks.
Concerns about tracking came to a head earlier this month when two computer programmers presented research showing the iPhone was logging locations. Privacy advocates have sharply criticized Apple, while the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Sen. Al Franken have asked the company to explain its policy.
“I would expect there are folks who would be interested in looking at this,” said Lydia Parnes, an attorney with Wilson Sonsini, Goodrich and Rosati and a former director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But just saying information is collected doesn’t automatically mean that it’s a problem. It’s all about what consumers understand.”
A spokeswoman for the Federal Trade Commission, which has been known to pursue companies that fail to adequately safeguard customers’ data, declined further comment on Apple.
Google Inc, a fierce competitor of Apple in mobile computing, has also faced sharp criticism over reports that Android-based phones track the locations of users.
In a statement on Wednesday, Google defended its process by saying it was up to consumers whether they want to participate in location sharing on Android-based phones.
“We provide users with notice and control over the collection, sharing and use of location in order to provide a better mobile experience on Android devices,” the search advertising company said.
Any data that is sent back to Google’s servers is anonymous, it said.
Apple, in seeking to clarify its position, also said the data is anonymous and shows only the location of Wi-Fi hotspots and cell towers surrounding the iPhone’s location. It said those geographic points could be more than 100 miles away from the actual location of the iPhone.
Separately, Apple also said a white version of the iPhone 4 would be available on Thursday after failing to deliver the model when it was introduced last year.
Ticonderoga Securities analyst Brian White cautioned against underestimating the consumer frenzy that might be stoked by a white version of Apple’s wildly popular smartphone.
“The purchase of consumer electronic devices is not always a completely rational decision. The delayed launch of a ‘white’ iPhone has created a certain mystique around the product,” White said.
Apple also announced that the newest generation of iPad would arrive in Japan, Hong Kong, Korea and other markets this week.
Apple shares closed down 27 cents at $350.15 on Wednesday.
Additional reporting by Diane Bartz in Washington and Edwin Chan in Los Angeles; Editing by Derek Caney and Matthew Lewis