The report follows on a frightening expose that the New York Times published in December 2019 that began to uncover the web of third-party data brokers and various entities that regular harvest vast amounts of information about us beyond just what apps we use and what we search for online. The piece described how the ostensibly randomized data nonetheless could be used by nefarious actors to track a person's every move — including celebrities to political figures — using just a few key bits of information.And Apple's report begins with an illustrative story of a fictional man named John taking his seven-year-old daughter to a park, describing how each thing that John does with iPhone, from looking up the weather to stopping for ice cream afterwards, is being tracked and sold as information.
"During the ride, there are 4 apps on his phone collecting and tracking their location data periodically in the background," the report says. "After the data has been extracted from the device, app developers sell it to a host of obscure third party data brokers that John has never heard of. Although the location data collected is claimed to be anonymous, user tracking allows data brokers to match John’s location history from these apps with information collected from his use of other apps. This means information tracked across different apps and from multiple sources is available for any company or organization to purchase, and could be used to create a comprehensive profile about him that includes his precise day-to-day movements."
Coming with Apple's next beta release for its iOS software, the company says, at an undetermined date in the spring, will be a new tool that allows users to actively allow or prohibit an app from collecting data about them, as well as new information on every app product page in the App Store explaining what that app company's data practices are — and what types of data, like photos and location data, it tends to use.As the Associated Press reports, the delay in the rollout of this next salvo in Apple's war on privacy invasion is being delayed to allow Facebook and other app makers to make the necessary adjustments to come into compliance — or to keep from scaring consumers into deleting their apps.
Facebook earlier led an outcry about the rollout of this feature last fall, leading to the delay, and Mark Zuckerberg has not minced words about Apple's motives. Facebook took out full-page ads calling out Apple's move, saying it had "every incentive" to use the power of the App Store to impede competitors."Apple may say that they are doing this to help people, but the moves clearly track their competitive interests," Zuckerberg said.The war between the two tech behemoths goes back years now, with CEO Tim Cook publicly throwing shade at Zuckerberg over the Cambridge Analytica scandal as that was coming to light in March 2018. Striking a superior stance as the public was beginning to learn the extent of Facebook's ability to put together monetizable profiles of all of its users, Cook said, "The truth is, [Apple] could make a ton of money if we monetized our customer — if our customer was our product. We’ve elected not to do that." When asked what he would do if he were in Zuckerberg's situation, Cook said, "“I wouldn’t be in this situation."
Zuckerberg responded calling these comments "extremely glib," and shot back that Apple was a company that "work[s] hard to charge you more."But the debate about whether Facebook's free service isn't quietly costing us all more than we comprehend in terms of privacy has raged on in the three years since. And Apple has continued to maintain a party line as a champion of privacy and transparency. It even went so far as to abruptly disable Facebook's own internal app network in January 2019, disabling the company's operations for about a day, by revoking its distribution certificates. This was done, Apple said, because of a breach by Facebook that came to light a day earlier, when TechCrunch reported on a Facebook market Research app that used internal Facebook tracking tools to track the phone activity of teenagers who opted into their research program.
"We designed our Enterprise Developer Program solely for the internal distribution of apps within an organization," Apple said at the time. "Facebook has been using their membership to distribute a data-collecting app to consumers, which is a clear breach of their agreement with Apple. Any developer using their enterprise certificates to distribute apps to consumers will have their certificates revoked, which is what we did in this case to protect our users and their data."But shortly thereafter, critics called out Apple for being somewhat hypocritical in this mess, with The Atlantic writing, "If Apple really cared about personal data, the company could take any number of actions to keep privacy violators off its platforms and away from its customers," and saying that Apple "enables the surveillance that supposedly offends its values."
Is Apple really a privacy-first company?
Well, two years on, we have Apple responding to those criticisms and putting its money where its mouth is, potentially impacting the business models of scores of app makers.
While currently, iPhone and iPad users can proactively prevent apps from collecting certain data about them, many simply download apps without looking any further into the matter. As the AP reports, "Analysts expect a significant number of users to deny [these] permission[s] once [Apple] requires their assent," which could lead to a whole lot of trouble for Facebook and others.
In remarks on Thursday, Cook stepped up his rhetoric toward Facebook specifically, referring to the recent Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma and saying, "A social dilemma cannot be allowed to become a social catastrophe."As the AP reports, Cook was speaking at the virtually held International Conference on Computers, Privacy & Data Protection, and he went beyond just these questions about data privacy."Too may are still asking the question ‘how much can we get away with?’ when we should be asking ‘what are the consequences?’ What are the consequences of not just tolerating but rewarding content that undermines public trust in life-saving vaccinations? What are the consequences of seeing thousands of users join extremist groups and then perpetuating an algorithm that recommends more?” Cook asked.
The Apple report released Thursday, notably, opens with a quote from tech-world demigod Steve Jobs, who said, "I believe people are smart and some people want to share more data than other people do. Ask them. Ask them every time. Make them tell you to stop asking them if they get tired of your asking them. Let them know precisely what you’re going to do with their data."Related: Apple Kicked Fortnite Out of the App Store, and Now Fortnite Has an Ad Mocking Apple's Famous '1984' AdPhoto by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images