Apple is the major tech company that has taken privacy the most seriously in the last few years. Google remains centered in the advertising business and vacuums up more data from more sources than anyone else, and the Android platform has addressed very few of the privacy issues that iOS has with their changes. Facebook too, continues to gobble data and offer users little more than token improvements in data control. Amazon has added a few privacy options to the Alexa platform while simultaneously remaining generally silent on the topic as a surveillance capitalist. They all talk about the ‘importance of privacy’ but their actions don’t back up their words.
Microsoft, it has to be said, has also done some good work in Windows, Edge and elsewhere.
But Apple has been a leader—in killing third-party cookies, in hardcore security (which benefits privacy) from introducing Touch/FaceID to the broad rollout of two-factor-authentication, and much more. Apple isn’t perfect, as we pointed out in this recent editorial, but they’re indisputably the best choice we’ve got and they do seem to be on a path towards offering users a very complete set of privacy protections.
With today’s release of iOS 14, Apple raises the bar again, in terms of both default privacy protections in a consumer OS, and optional features that allow users to dramatically improve their privacy.
Where They Added Privacy
The changes come in three groups; the first are core operating system features, options, and services that change and enhance the way iOS14 protects users or allows them to protect themselves. The second are upgrades to the Safari browser and additions that help make the web less hostile to users’ privacy. Finally, there are some bonus privacy enhancements across related Apple services like Sign In, ApplePay, and the App Store.
One of the challenges Apple faces in OS is that there are many apps that legitimately need access to personal data; your location is necessary to give directions, your photos are necessary within a photo sharing app, and many more. But for too long, too many apps got too much access and then used it in ways users didn’t expect,understand, or even know about.
Apple’s response has been to expose users to more clarity about what apps are using data and when they’re using it – and to give users reminders over time so they can take permission away as easily as they gave it. In iOS13, for example, they added striking dialog boxes that reminds users of how often an app is getting and using location data – complete with a stark visual graphic of where they have seen you go. Just below is an option to stop sharing location data with that app.
Camera/Microphone Use Alerts
In iOS 14, they expand disclosures further. Now whenever an app uses the camera or microphone, the iPhone displays an indicator that shows what’s in use. A green light indicates that the camera is on, while an orange one indicates the mic is on.
Clipboard Copy Alerts
Another new alert lets you know that an app is accessing the data that’s on your clipboard. For example, if you copy a link from Twitter to send via a text message, the clipboard is what remembers the link. Many apps have been caught copying clipboard data without your consent or your knowledge until now.
Local Network Device Access
Some apps want to know what other devices are on your phone’s network. If you’re at home, for example, an app might pick up that a smart TV, Alexa, and maybe even a smart fridge are all on the same wifi network. Apple now asks you permission before allowing an app to get that information.
App Store Privacy Details
A lot of the tracking Apple doesn’t protect you from happens in other apps you download from the App Store. While apps do have to pass an Apple security screening, they have not been that tough on apps in many regards, including privacy. To be fair, apps have justified needs for data depending on the service they provide and it’s not always easy to tell what’s required and what’s excessive.
But for now, Apple is at least improving the clarity of communication about how apps are tracking you and the kind of data they collect and use. This is done via a new report you can check in the App Store before you download any app.
This data is self-reported, meaning apps developers will be giving the App Store this information—it’s unknown exactly how or to the degree Apple will verify or enforce accuracy – although messing with Apple is not in any developer’s interest nor is it likely inaccuracies will last for long.
New Location Sharing Option
Perhaps nothing has made people as uncomfortable over the last few years regarding personal information disclosures as the widespread clarity of how broadly our phones and apps share our location data. As many have reported, everywhere you go is known by dozens of companies, and they analyze where you’ve been and what it means about you.
In iOS14 Apple has developed an elegant solution to at least part of this problem – the new ‘Approximate Location’ option. Now, instead of sharing your exact location with apps, you can opt to give them just an approximation, which Apple describes as a circular region that’s just a few miles across and is recomputed a few times an hour to make it harder for anyone to pinpoint your exact coordinates.
Expanded Sharing Functionality
Another improvement is granular control over the permissions you can give apps for access to your photos or contacts. It used to be all or nothing; but now you can give an app access to only specific photos or certain people. This is a great improvement, especially with photos where, in the past, dozens of apps have had access to your entire camera roll.
Wi-Fi Tracking Privacy
In your Wi-Fi settings, Apple also turns on by default a new option called “Private Address” for each specific Wi-Fi network you join. Before you phone gave every WiFi network the same MAC ID, which allowed different networks to know you were the same person. Not anymore, now each Network gets a different MAC ID. This should be transparent to you, but you can disable the option if you have any connection issues.
Removed Sharing Functionality
iOS14 is also notable for what’s going away. There is no more ‘Location Based Apple Ads’ option in the System Services menu (Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services), presumably because there are no more location based Apple Ads. There’s a new ‘Personalized Ads’ option (Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising) which lets you disable all personalization for ads service via the Apple Ad Network (this does not affect most ads you see in browsers and some apps) but presumably (again) it does not use location information.
The bigger news is that the ‘Limit Ad Tracking’ option is gone (Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising) because, in effect, it’s on by default and cannot be turned off. This means that browsers and advertisers no longer get a secret unique ID that helps them identify you, track you across the web, and build huge profiles covering everywhere you go, everything you buy, and which ads you see and click on. If you turned on the old ‘Limit Ad Tracking’ option you already enjoyed this freedom, but many people didn’t and it’s a big move for Apple to effectively enable it by default.
NOTE: Apple has announced that they will delay this universal tracking ID block for six months, but it’s not clear in the iOS14 Gold Master if they have made any change or if they’re going to issue a dot release that temporarily reverts this improvement.
Apps and advertisers can ask you to opt-in to tracking, letting you agree to personal tracking on a case-by-case basis; but nobody assumes many people will agree to this and you shouldn’t. An even better option is to disable the new “Allow Apps to Request to Track” option (Settings > Privacy > Tracking) so you can never even be asked.
All of the above represents progress, but it’s still a lot to follow. The options that remain are spread across three different screens, and the ‘don’t opt-out of opt-ing in to not be asked about tracking’ nature of all of it is quite confusing. Apple could have done better with a single set of ‘Advertising Options’ with clearer names. Three steps forward, one back.
Safari Privacy Improvements
Browsers are a tough place to protect privacy, but Apple has steadily been improving Safari for some time. See our recent overview of Safari here. In iOS14 (and the corresponding MacOS Catalina) Safari gets a few important additional improvements:
Improved tracker blocking and reporting
Safari has been increasingly tough on cookies over the past few years with its Intelligent Tracking Prevention and other features, and in iOS14, they’re moving on to start blocking trackers. Until now tracker blocking has required the purchase of a third-party Content Blocker, (that will still probably be a good idea) but by partnering with DuckDuckGo, Apple is adding tracker blocking to Safari itself.
New Privacy Report
The tracker blocking manifests in another new feature, a privacy report you can see for every website you visit. To view it, click on the AA icon in the browser bar, which brings down the increasingly crowded menu with Reader View. At the bottom, you’ll see the Privacy Report.
When you open the report, you’ll see a view familiar to anyone who has used the DuckDuckGo extension in Safari or other browsers. You get stats on trackers blocked, counts of how many trackers different websites use, and lists of the trackers that you’ve loaded. Not all of these are blocked, and the DuckDuckGo blocker historically is less aggressive than many other third-party tracker blockers. That’s good in that it tends to not ‘break’ many websites, but it prevents less tracking than options like Better Blocker, 1Blocker, or Magic Lasso (three of our favorites).
Nevertheless this is a great improvement to the baseline; we hope it exposes more people to the benefits of tracker blockers and they consider adding more powerful ones via Content Blockers, which are still supported in iOS14.
Passwords are a key element of privacy, and Apple’s free iCloud Keychain is a password manager that many rely on. Now in iOS14, Safari will scan passwords to make sure they’re strong enough (click here to learn about strong passwords), and passwords will be checked against a list of breached passwords to ensure the password is unique and isn’t using any derivations of commonly known passwords. This is becoming a standard feature in paid password managers, but to offer this broadly and free right in the OS is a big useful upgrade for many.
Bonus Privacy Enhancements
The Apple world is an interdependent ecosystem, and two growingly important privacy related features are getting upgrades with iOS14, and the Apple Store is getting a Privacy Upgrade too.
Sign in with Apple
Apple was late to the universal sign in game, but they improved on everyone by adding meaningful privacy to the process. When you use Sign in with Apple you can choose to hide your name and your email from the service where you’re signing in. Apple then forwards any email to you, but you can cut them off anytime even if the source doesn’t stop trying to email you.
With iOS 14, users will have more opportunities to use this feature and you’ll be able to “upgrade” existing accounts to use Sign in with Apple for authentication purposes.
Apple Pay (which can be used even if you don’t have the Apple Card), offers several privacy enhancements over standard debit or credit cards. When you use Apple Pay, your credit card details are encrypted, making it much harder for any third-party to intercept the communication and steal your financial information. Apple never keeps your transaction data and if you do use the Apple Card, your transaction data isn’t sold or used for advertising purposes.
iOS 14 will offer more opportunities to use Apple Pay and, according to some rumors, you’ll be able to launch and use Apple Pay using QR Codes.
Solid Incremental Progress
We like the privacy changes and features Apple has added to iOS14. The trends toward disclosure, opt-in to sharing data (rather than opt-out to stop sharing), and they’re moving what were formerly advanced third-party features like tracker blocking and password testing into the base OS, are all really helpful in improving the baseline privacy of hundreds of millions of people. And because it’s Apple, it puts pressure on every OS everywhere to make these standards everyone should expect.
From a privacy perspective, iOS14 is an excellent upgrade.