13 privacy improvements Apple announced at WWDC

Apple maintains its focus on providing technology-driven convenience while also protecting customer privacy.

Apple, WWDC, iOS 14, macOS 11, privacy, Safari, iPad

Apple continues to focus on the challenge of providing tech-driven convenience while protecting customer privacy in its upcoming operating system releases. Here are all the privacy-related improvements to expect in iOS 14, macOS 11 and iPad.

Why privacy matters

Fundamentally, the challenge with mobile technologies is the sheer quantity of personal data that can be collected and used against people. A smartphone, for example, knows when it is picked up, how often, how high, by whom, who it is in contact with, which websites you visit and much, much more.

Entire industries have grown up dedicated to gathering this information, making it searchable and cross-referencing databases to get not just a picture of how people like you behave, but how you behave.

While some argue that privacy should be set aside because this information is useful to law enforcement, the inconvenient truth is that for every criminal investigation there are likely dozens of instances of weaponized fake news, egregious uses of personal data and criminal attempts to seize documentation, bank details and identity.

When you think about the sheer quantity of personal (and corporate) data held inside every phone, it should be clear that this information is personal, powerful – and profitable, if hacked.

Weakening privacy protection for one reason opens the floodgates to a digital crime wave that, like Pandora’s box, will be near impossible to push back once they are open. That’s why privacy matters.

So, what is Apple doing to protect it?

In the broadest sense, it works to minimize the data it needs to run services, to improve on-device intelligence in order to ensure data remains on the device, to provide better security protections and to improve transparency and control for users.

Improved privacy protections provided in 2020 include:

App Store puts privacy first

Developers selling apps on the Apple App Store will be required to explain the privacy practices of each app they sell. This information will be made available in a standardized format, rather like a food nutrition label. The idea is that shoppers will be able to make educated decisions about apps, and avoid installing those that ask for too much access to personal or device data. Also new in iOS 14, App Clips maintain the same levels of security and privacy and will require the same express consent approvals as any other app.

Biometric authentication for sites and services

Apple at WWDC 2020 confirmed that iOS 14 and macOS 11 will introduce support for a FIDO standard called Web Authentication (WebAuthn) in Safari. This essentially means you’ll be able to use Touch ID and Face ID to provide biometric authentication for websites and services. More info is available here.

Better oversight of cross-app tracking

Apps that engage in cross-app tracking – basically monitoring how you use apps – will now be required to request special permission to do so. This information is customarily used to deliver personalized ads, but you can now demand that apps not track you at all, or allow it, if you choose. NB: There are exceptions to this, principally for fraud prevention.

You’ll know when they are watching and listening

Apple has also introduced a new camera and microphone indicator to iOS. You’ll now see a small orange circle appear just above the network signal icon when an app is using your camera and/or microphone. This gives users a chance to tell whether an app is surreptitiously recording or filming them.

Granular control of where Extensions work

Apple has made it easier for Chrome extensions developers to migrate their software to the Mac, but it has gone one better by improving the controls users have over what those extensions can do. You can now choose which extensions work on which sites and provide access forever or for one day at a time (or never).

You can control your location privacy far better

Apple is making a big change in how it provides location information to apps. You will be able to choose to use something called Proxy Location, rather than precise coordinates.

Apple has basically divided the entire planet into small boxes, and your location is now kept in one of these generalized areas – the use of a fixed frame means apps and others can’t figure out where you are by triangulating different data. This lets users continue to use some geolocation apps without sacrificing privacy.

You can control this on a per app basis: Open Settings>Privacy>Location Services and you’ll find a list of apps that have requested access to your location. Select any of these and you will be able to toggle Precise Location to off.

Who is at your door?

Apple has also linked up two useful features: home entry systems that support HomeKit Secure Video camera can now work in conjunction with the Faces you have identified in your Photos collection. These systems will know who is at the door based on Faces you have tagged in Photos.

Better protection against use of breached passwords

The company has been improving its built-in password management functions in recent years. This already made it easy to identify instances in which a user may have used the same password on different sites. Now, Safari also monitors your saved passwords and alerts you if any of these may have been involved in a data breach.  

It achieves this through use of cryptographic techniques that regularly check a derivation of your passwords against a list of breaches in such a way that your own passwords are never revealed, even to Apple.

If a breach is spotted you’ll see an alert appear beside any subverted password in the password management tool on iOS and Mac. The system will also generate a secure password to replace it with, if you want.

Improved control over image library sharing with apps

When you want to share a photo using an app on iOS 14, you’ll no longer need to give that app wholesale access to your Photos library. Instead, you will be able to select specific photos and videos to share with that app.

The first time an app attempts to ask for permission to access your library you will be able to assign it to Select Photos or Allow Access to All Photos. You can change existing app permissions around Photos in Settings>Privacy>Photos.

The Privacy Report tells you who is watching

Safari has introduced a new Privacy Report for each website you visit. It gathers information collected by Apple’s Intelligent Tracking Prevention tool, which works to identify trackers and prevent them from profiling or following you across the web. 

When you click Privacy Report from your Safari menu, you’ll be able to see all the cross-site trackers blocked by Safari in the last 30 days. It shows the total number of trackers, percent of websites containing trackers, and even the most-seen tracker.

This report can be made available directly from the improved iOS 14 Start Page and is also available on individual pages when you tap the Privacy Report button in the Safari toolbar.

Now you can replace other systems with Sign in With Apple

Apple has improved its Sign In With Apple service. Developers can now offer it as an option for site and service authorization to users with existing accounts that originally signed up with a different service. Such users can simply migrate to Sign In With Apple to gain better security.

Translation and dictation on device

You can enable an on-device mode for Safari’s new Translation tools. When you do so, you can translate sites and conversations on your device, maintaining privacy. This also extends to keyboard dictation which performs all its processes offline.

More control over Contacts sharing in apps

Some third-party apps will request access to your entire Contacts list when you try to set them up. This is no longer the case; users can now type specific individual names to automatically input corresponding phone numbers, addresses, or email addresses in fields that request it. The autofill happens on your device, and contacts are not shared with third-party developers without your consent.

These are the improvements I’ve been able to identify so far – please let me know if you come across more.

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Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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