8 Jun 2021

Apple continues privacy war with app tracker reports

1:18 pm on 8 June 2021

Apple device users will now be able to 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.

This handout image obtained June 7, 2021 courtesy of Apple Inc. shows Apple CEO Tim Cook spotlights the dynamic community of App Store developers across the globe at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference at Apple Park in Cupertino, California. -

Apple chief executive Tim Cook in front of a montage of apps while he was opening the WWDC event in Cupertino, California. Photo: AFP / Apple Inc

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.

Users can see how permissions are used

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, an 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 the user's 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.

Facetime updates unveiled

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."

The FaceTime application icon is seen on an iPhone home screen in Warsaw, Poland on March 3, 2021.

Apple has announced updates to its Facetime video calling platform so that it can close the gap on its rivals, such as Teams and Zoom. Photo: AFP

Apple Wallet and digital records

Digital keys are coming to Apple Wallet, the firm's vice-president internet services, Apple pay, Jennifer Bailey announced.

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.

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.

Health app changes

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 be improved.

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.


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