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The iPhone’s magic powers of memory recall July 9, 2007

Posted by fukumimi in IT, Mobile, technology.

This post originated as a comment to a post by Michael Parekh on his blog, but it got rather long so I decided to post here instead.

Apparently Michael and his wife have been having some problems with their iPhones, through which he became aware of the ability to auto-restore a dead iPhone (or its replacement) to the last known good configuration. He writes:

The only saving grace of the whole experience was that after re-activating the phone with AT&T via iTunes, I got a very welcome message in iTunes, asking if I’d like to automatically restore my wife’s phone, with all her data and settings.

Apparently, unbeknown-st to me, iTunes had made a backup of her phone (and presumably mine), and was able to fully restore her new iPhone to be a familiar clone of the old one in about 20 minutes. Including the personal picture she was using as her start page “wall-paper”.

That helped restore my shaken faith a bit in Apple’s newest baby.

So, I guess the unlimited data plan conveniently masks the fact that Apple is uploading data from your phone to their servers, apparently without the knowledge or explicit consent of the user.

[Update: Having thought about this a bit more, it is possible (read: I hope) that the data sync is just occuring between the iPhone and the iTunes software on the user’s PC. That would mean of course that users who don’t sync their iPhone to iTunes regularly will not be able to take advantage of the restoration functionality. On balance, I’d greatly prefer this alternative scenario (with its attendant “inconveniences”, given the implications of the original hypothesis. The scenario below which is based on server-side backup is, for me, rather uncomfortable, even as a law abiding citizen with no major skeletons in my closet. In any case, I think Apple would be well advised to clarify how they are doing this, especially as their chosen carrier partner is at&t – recall the at&t/Narus/NSA case.]

Handy indeed for the times your iPhone breaks, or when you drop it in the toilet, or it gets stolen, but I have to wonder what people would say if the same kind of “convenience feature” was executed by a Microsoft (or even Google these days) without explicit user approval. (I’m assuming that no such approval exists (or is buried in the small print), I don’t have an iPhone and haven’t read through the ULAs or other legal documentation.)

I wonder how aggressive the data backup is. Michael says “all [the] data” was backed up. There are things like the address book, sent/received emails (esp. those sent via WiFi), browser bookmarks, browser history (again, especially usage via WiFi), browser cookies (ditto), calendar entries, notes, which they would not have access to by just monitoring the at&t network.

Given a phone is a personal device making the user that much more identifiable, the privacy issues are worth consideration, I think.


1. Durf - July 9, 2007

When your iPod syncs with your photos, or music, or address book, or whatever, all that data is on your own computer. You can do the syncing without a live net connection and no external servers are involved. I don’t see any reason (or, um, evidence) that this wouldn’t be the case for the snapshots of an iPhone connecting to the same software.

2. fukumimi - July 10, 2007

On balance, I would think you are right. I was in a consipracy theory frame of mind at 3am in the morning.

Still, I think the issue of what data is being synced, even just with a desktop app, is worth thinking about.

It would certainly give malicious hackers the first real reason to try and hack a piece of Apple software (iTunes). Not much point stealing someone’s playlist, but all the data in a phone is a whole different matter.

3. Zaiaku - July 15, 2007

Well the iphone like many smartphones, although the iphone isn’t a real smartphone, they have a builtin datasynce. Although you don’t need a connection to ync anything it does this automatically by default.

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