Apple is Leveling Up on Privacy

Apple’s new privacy tools button down access for everyone, even itself

In an era of increasing concern about our digital privacy, Apple's building a consistent and comprehensive plan to ensure that it's your data, your choice.

Tim Cook at WWDC
Apple CEO Tim Cook delivers the WWDC 2020 Keynote.  

Apple, the company that is not selling your data or even remotely interested in it, is smartly leaning into the “your data your choice" idea, announcing during Monday’s WWDC 2020 Keynote a half a dozen privacy reinforcements that protect your privacy and hold web site and app developers accountable.

And it may be able to do it all without adversely impacting your device experience.

The key areas of attack are:

  • More Sign-in with Apple opportunities
  • Approximate Location Data
  • Recording indicators
  • App Tracking and Privacy
  • Browser privacy

In all these areas, Apple is either siphoning off access and shining a bright spotlight on practices that might normally go unnoticed. In each instance it’s only asking as much of developers and Web site hosts as it does of itself.

No, Seriously, Where are You?

For consumers, the most immediately useful update might be approximate location. In iOS 14 and iPadOS 14, you’ll be asked upon app installation if you want to grant standard, approximate or no location information.

While a shocking number of apps ask for location information, most don’t need it and even fewer need your exact location. Apple noted that a news app could, for instance, deliver relevant local news without knowing exactly where you are. So could your weather forecast.

Craig Federighi
Apple SVP Craig Federighi explains location privacy.  

With Approximate Location, the system draws a 10-square-mile radius circle and places you, randomly, somewhere within it. That circle might be centered around a landmark within that radius.

The update will also let app developers set approximate location as their default, so their apps never ask for exactly where you are.

There are currently no plans to make Approximate Location a system-wide setting (for when, say, you don’t want family to know exactly where you are in town).

We’re Watching and Listening

Your iPhone already shows you when an app is using the mic or camera when it's in the background (a red bar). With iOS 14, Apple added indicators to the apps themselves. If the app is using the mic, an orange dot appears at the top. If it’s using the camera, you see a green dot.

If, for some reason, you weren’t paying attention or didn’t understand the app would be using those features, you can also drop into the Control Center and see exactly what app was most recently using your mic and camera.

This feature might be more exciting if these colored dots could bubble to the surface so it’s obvious wherever you are on the iPhone that something is recording your activity.

But is it Good for You?

Speaking of over-reaching apps, Apple’s idea of a Nutrition Label for apps is as entertaining as it is useful.

How many times have we learned too late that an app is collecting all sorts of data and, worse yet, sharing it with third parties? We could read the terms of service (TOS)… oh, who am I kidding? No one reads those.

These App Privacy report cards basically force app developers to think through their TOS by answering a 31-category questionnaire that Apple boils down into an App Privacy Nutrition Label for every app.

Data Nutrition
Some of the information you can learn about an app based on Apple's new privacy information-collection process.

Granted, this is the developers self-reporting what they do or don’t do. So, we’ll take all of this with a grain of salt. Still, no one else is asking them these questions.

That label should offer users an at-a-glance way of understanding what the App developer plans to do with their data. It addresses any data the developer collects that could be linked back to you, data they collect and anonymize, data they might use to track you outside the app, and data that they do not collect.

Apple, by the way will have Privacy Nutrition Labels for its own apps, as well.

Going on a Privacy Safari

Safari in macOS takes a similar tact. While no one is querying each web site for their exact privacy practices, Safari is keeping track of all the trackers each Web site is using and now gives one-button access to that list from the Safari menu. You can also get a quick look at all the trackers Safari’s blocked in the last 30 days.

At the same time, Apple is both expanding extension access to Safari by supporting the Web Extension API most popular with the Chromium engine and giving users more control over when and on which sites extensions run. The latter helps put a lid on extensions that can potentially interact with every site you visit.

Trackers
One button is all you need to spot the trackers on a Web site.  

Finally, Apple is expanding its Sign-in with Apple program, which allows you to use your Apple ID to create new logins that hide your private information, like your email address, from sites and services. I already use and love this feature on my iPhone.

Later this year, you’ll be able to convert old accounts to Sign-in with Apple. Once that’s done, you can use Face ID or Touch ID to log in. The system works on iOS, iPadOS and macOS and will work with web browsers other than Safari.

While no one is claiming Apple has solved privacy, it is hard to argue that competitors like Google and Amazon are doing more.