Privacy has long been one of Apple’s biggest selling points. While Facebook and Google are essentially 21st century ad agencies, Apple remains mostly a hardware and software company. That means it doesn’t really have any use for your data, so it’s taking itself out of the data loop and using AI to handle anything sensitive.
At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas—arguably the tech industry’s most anticipated trade show of the year—Jane Horvath, senior director for global privacy at Apple, spoke about the company’s commitment to keeping users’ data safely under wraps while speaking on a panel with other chief privacy officers from companies like Facebook. It represents the first time Apple has had a presence at CES since 1992, when then-CEO John Sculley announced that the company would begin selling a lower-cost version of the Mac in retail stores.
Horvath, who has previously served as global privacy counsel for Google and has also worked as chief privacy counsel at the Department of Justice, touted Apple’s renewed focus on “privacy by design,” presenting the company as the one consumer electronics firm that customers can really trust.
“Our phones are relatively small and they get lost and stolen,” Horvath said during a livestream of the event. “If we’re going to be able to rely on our health data and finance data on our devices, we need to make sure that if you misplace that device, you’re not losing your sensitive data.”
Horvath even confirmed that Apple is scanning content uploaded to iCloud for child sexual abuse material.
And there’s some teeth behind Horvath’s comments. In November, the company unveiled a new version of its privacy website and released four new whitepapers outlining security updates that it has made to its maps application, contacts storage, sign-in protocol, and Safari browser. (Note: These aren’t default features, so you’ll have to turn them on manually.) Apple is also turning to AI to help double down on its privacy options for users, the company tells Popular Mechanics.
Here are some of the big things you need to know about Apple’s updated privacy tools.
Apple uses this feature to collect sensitive data. While the feature has existed for some time, it wasn’t until this year that the company took things a step further by using machine learning models that operate independently on each individual iPhone to add digital noise to any data before being sent to Apple’s servers.
This data could be related health statistics from your Apple Watch, or simply just the sites you’re visiting to stream TV. Apple says it has no interest in knowing what sites you’re visiting, though, as it’s all anonymous.
In effect, every Apple device has its own data that trains the machine learning algorithm how to best make that noise to protect sensitive data. Combined, this creates a new base model that is sent down to all users. The company isn’t taking aggregate data from each user and then creating a machine learning model; it’s combining individual models based on data from individual sources.
This is beneficial because it could help Apple design new features based on data it obtains. Which emojis are used most often? How much time do people spend on the iMessage app? Is it worth adding more features to that app if it’s already popular? Have new features turned people off? These are all questions that can be solved through differential privacy.
In the Safari whitepaper, Apple notes it will introduce “intelligent tracking prevention” throughout the browser. This is essentially an update to a prior system that blocked cookies from third-party vendors looking to track the number of visitors to a given website for marketing and advertising purposes.
This new update will also include first-party cookies, which means Safari will not track which pages users jump to after viewing another. If you visit a page about shipwrecks, for example, advertisers won’t know if you visit a page about pirates right afterward if you use Safari, for example.
“Users experience this tracking in action when they look at a product online and then ads for that product seem to follow them around the web,” the company notes in the whitepaper. “Tracking is pervasive; some websites include 100 or more trackers from different companies on a single page.”
Blocking that kind of traffic could be a negative for news companies or other media firms that use data analytics to make decisions. It’ll be harder for companies to make affiliate commerce or sell online banner ads, for example.
If you use your Mac or iPhone on a different browser, like Chrome or Firefox, these rules don’t apply.
It’s important to keep in mind that third party apps created by developers other than Apple are not party to the new privacy rules. So if you’re playing, say, Candy Crush, no promises that you’re not being tracked.
The newest privacy updates to Apple’s own in-house apps include:
* Safari: The intelligent tracking prevention option stops advertisers from following you, as described above.
* Maps: The app will no longer associate your Apple ID or keep a log of where you’ve searched or where you’ve been.
* Photos: Using machine learning, photos can be organized locally on the device, so you don’t need to even share them with Apple.
* Messages: Apple can’t read your messages. Period.
* Siri: Not only is your Apple ID not connected to Siri, but you can delete the whole thing.
* News: The app will deliver content based on your interests, but it won’t know your identity.
* Wallet: Apple doesn’t keep any financial information that can be traced back to you, and it hides all credit and debit card information.
* Health: You’re in charge of what info is collected and who it’s shared with.
It’s up to you to instate these features, Apple says. They’re security options, but they’re not security defaults. You can select the level of scrutiny you’d like on your device.
“Your devices are important to so many parts of your life,” Apple says. “What you share from those experiences, and who you share it with, should be up to you.”
🔐 How to Opt In
* While Intelligent Tracking Prevention is built into Safari by default and comes pre-installed as the browser of choice on Apple devices, you don’t have to use it. If you want to benefit from this feature, use Safari—simple as that. There’s an added layer where Safari can show pop-up dialogue boxes asking you if you’d like to allow social widgets to access your identity. Simply check “allow” or “don’t allow” based on your preferences.
* To opt into the differential privacy feature, sign up under Device Analytics in the user settings menu. When you set up a device running MacOS or iOS, you’re presented with a choice to opt in or not. You can always change your mind in System Preferences on Mac or Settings on iPads and iPhones.
-To check out the data collected under differential privacy, go to Settings > Privacy > Analytics > Analytics Data and look at all entries that begin with “DifferentialPrivacy” in the file name. In macOS, launch the Console app and view the information under the Differential Privacy category of System Reports.