Apple continues privacy war with app tracker reports
Apple device users will now be able see when individual apps request to access features such as the microphone, camera and phone gallery, plus which third parties they have connected with in the last seven days.
The new “app privacy report” feature was unveiled at the firm’s annual developers’ conference, WWDC.
Apple has prioritised privacy lately, including a war on ad-tracking.
No new hardware was announced at the event, despite earlier speculation.
The new privacy report goes further than Apple’s existing “nutrition labels” which show users what kinds of permissions apps ask for, before they are installed.
It will allow users to dive deep into when exactly an app used the permissions it has been given – and what third-party websites it contacted or sent data to.
“Apple continues to double down on privacy,” said Thomas Husson, analyst at Forrester.
“In this area, no doubt Apple is leading the pack and setting the tone for the rest of the industry.”
Other privacy-focused updates included:
- audio processing moving to be on-device only – so voice commands to Apple’s smart assistant Siri will not be uploaded to central servers, unlike competitors such as the Amazon Echo
- Apple Mail to hide the IP address of the device it is accessed on, meaning that senders of marketing emails, for example, cannot track where an email is sent and whether it is read
- Apple’s own web browser Safari will prevent any third parties from accessing a user’s IP address to block tracking
- iCloud subscribers will have the option to route Safari traffic through two internet relays, similar to a VPN, to hide your identity; and the “hide my email” feature, first unveiled in 2019, will be extended to hide email addresses when used to sign up to a number of online services
However a previous move by the tech giant to offer its customers a choice over whether to accept tracking for the purposes of advertising was criticised by a number of firms, including Facebook and other free-to-use services, for which ad tracking is a rich source of revenue.
The firm also showed off a raft of updates to its Facetime video calling platform, some of which appear to compete with apps such as Zoom which exploded in popularity during the pandemic.
They include a gallery mode to view multiple speakers, a portrait mode with blurred backgrounds, and the ability to schedule Facetime calls and create web links.
This will also enable Android and Windows PC users to join calls, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi said. Until now, the platform has only worked between Apple devices.
The new features form part of its latest operating system, iOS15.
“Allowing Apple owners to invite Android and PC users to FaceTime calls via a browser acknowledges the pandemic has sparked explosive growth in group video calling,” said Ben Wood, chief analyst at CCS Insight.
“Apple risked being left behind services such as Teams and Zoom – but browser-based calling won’t be enough to close the gap.”
Apple Wallet and digital records
Digital keys are coming to Apple Wallet, announced the firm’s Jennifer Bailey.
Car firm BMW and hotel chain Hyatt will be among the first to offer the keys – and it will also be available for homes.
The collaboration with BMW was initially announced at WWDC 2020 but has yet to actually launch.
In some US states, iPhone users will also be able to store their State ID and driving licences, with the Transportation Security Administration lined up to be among the first to be able to use it, said Ms Bailey.
Apple also announced Live Text, which is able to scan a user’s library of photos for text that can be made searchable and copied and pasted between apps – for example, a phone number from a business card or menu.
Some note-taking apps have used optical character recognition (OCR) for similar reasons for years, but Apple’s solution is baked into the phone operating system itself.
The health app can now track walking steadiness and issue alerts if a user appears less steady, along with exercise suggestions as to how it might improve.
Apple also enabled health app data sharing with doctors, and between family members, but only with the health app user’s consent. The encrypted data is not visible to the tech giant, it stressed.
However, there may be a cultural barrier to overcome here, said Ben Wood.
“The ability to share health data with other family members looks an interesting idea on paper, but it is hard to see that many parents would want to share updates with their children,” he said.
There may, for example, be a number of reasons why a person’s heart rate increases which are not medical emergencies.
Others, like Carolina Milanesi from Creative Strategies, said she could see it being taken up by families who live far away.
“My biggest worry over the pandemic was my mom and asking how she was felt like nagging her,” she tweeted.