back to article Academics probe Apple's privacy settings and get lost and confused

A study has concluded that Apple's privacy practices aren't particularly effective, because default apps on the iPhone and Mac have limited privacy settings and confusing configuration options. The research was conducted by Amel Bourdoucen and Janne Lindqvist of Aalto University in Finland. The pair noted that while many …

  1. DS999 Silver badge

    I agree with this

    They need a single place where you can lock down settings for anything privacy related. The problem they have is that there are several categories of privacy related settings that are put in different places, so unless you explore the settings menu to find where it is all kept you might miss something.

    It also wouldn't hurt to have a single "max privacy" setting you could select per app (or even as a "select all") with the proviso that if an app needed something to operate (like location for a mapping app) it would be able to re-ask about that setting once after you flip the app's "master switch" since people may want "max privacy" but then would complain if an app stops working with no explanation as to why.

    I think they should have all built in app ask for permissions just like third party apps do on first use. That might be a little annoying, but treating their apps exactly like third party apps is something regulators would like to see. I'm sure they'd hate to do that simply because it would be a bit jarring for new users to be bombarded with permissions dialogs before they even download a single third party app, but I don't see a way around it without putting their own apps in a special category. At least users would know exactly what data is being used by the various built in apps.

    1. simonlb Silver badge
      Joke

      Re: I agree with this

      However, this is Apple, who know what is best for you so don't worry your precious little head about this silly security business and run along and fondle your shiny, shiny iDevice some more.

      1. Captain Hogwash

        Re: I agree with this

        Not sure why you used the joke icon. This is pretty much what is going on. Just like Google, Meta, etc, Apple have a vested interest in making this stuff difficult for their users.

        1. DS999 Silver badge

          Re: I agree with this

          What's Apple's vested interest? They don't want third party apps collecting a bunch of data on their users so making it harder to lock that down is not to their benefit.

          It doesn't benefit them at all to collect data inside built in apps, either. If you believe they are evil at heart and the whole "privacy" thing is a sham, then they can just collect data directly out of the OS and don't need to collect it from the built in apps.

          So no matter how you slice it, it doesn't make sense for Apple to make privacy difficult to achieve. Now Google and Facebook that's a different story, they make all their money from advertising.

          1. raving angry loony

            Re: I agree with this

            As of 2021 Apple had a $15 billion (ever increasing) deal with Google that includes, amongst other things, making Google the default on their phones.

            Do you really believe that the browser and tools are the ONLY thing they're selling to Google?

          2. Falmari Silver badge

            Re: I agree with this

            @DS999 "What's Apple's vested interest?"

            The last sentence of the article.

            "Reminder: Apple has a multi-billion-dollar online ads business that it built while strongly criticizing Facebook and others for their privacy practices."

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I agree with this

      Yup, it's confusing as hell.

      You can switch off (or can you?) "friendly" always-listening Siri, but each app (every single one of them) also has its own set of "Siri and Search" settings, each containing about half a dozen different (and somewhat opaquely described) sub-settings, and it's not entirely clear what "Learn from this App" really actually does (and whether or not anything so-'learned' gets vacuumed up and exfiltrated off your device or is stored locally only).

      Yes, my phone seeing an email from a friend suggesting a night out, and then reminding me later to add the details to my calendar, is sort of handy, but just as a principle of privacy, I absolutely do not want (nor give informed consent to) any of that information leaving my phone (nor iCloud slurping up all my friends' contact details (and without their consent, either) and my entire calendar entries, etc, which is what would happen if you make Genosse Siri fully enabled - HAL 9000 has nothing on him/her/it…)

      And then, every time there is an iOS update, it seems that all of these settings get enabled all over again, completely ignoring and overwriting the values that you had previously set them to, which is completely unacceptable.

  2. Neil Barnes Silver badge

    users may disable default apps

    only to discover later that the settings do not match their initial preference

    I know I'm paranoid, but am I paranoid enough? This kind of bullshit - not just from apple but from all the big makers - is why people get pissed off with computers.

  3. Pascal Monett Silver badge

    "it's written in legalese"

    So, documentation written by lawyers.

    If that is not proof that we're going to Hell in a handbasket, I don't know what is.

    1. amajadedcynicaloldfart

      Re: "it's written in legalese"

      @Pascal Monett

      This is legalese?

      https://www.apple.com/legal/privacy/en-ww/

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This Is A Technically-Focused Site.....

    .....so of course the articles and the comments come from technically literate folk.

    But 99.9% of iPhone or Mac users ARE NOT IN THIS GROUP!!!

    Millions (billion?) of smartphone users are seduced by "ease of use"...........

    ...............and don't know (or don't care) about issues like "security" or "privacy"...........

    Sigh!!!

  5. Sentinel59

    This is what happened with iTunes. Started out pretty straight forward and gradually turned into a confusing mess. Look at what happened to settings on the past couple of iterations of macOS. You gotta use a search engine to find out how to use it. Just when you think you've figured it out, there's an update...

    1. 43300 Silver badge

      Even on WIndows, iTunes is now in the process of being replaced by separate apps. It's quite clear that these have been designed to push their subscription services, rather than being structured around a local library and individual purchases - as iTunes was.

      1. johnB

        iTunes

        Shudder

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Hey, I bet you're still using your own local media files. Why not use Apple Music instead, here it is. Go on try it, you know you want to. Switch off the button? I'm sure you don't want to do that. Here it is again. Because you like it so much, we've made it impossible to deactivate.

      Don't think different, just don't think™

  6. Rich 2 Silver badge

    Not just security

    The issues highlighted are valid and I completely agree. But it’s apple settings in general that are an issue. The problems I have include;-

    - some settings can be on or off. But it’s not always clear what “on” means. So do I want the setting on or off?

    - the settings are generally inconsistently worded and operate inconsistently

    - the settings are spread over many menus and are very poorly grouped and often difficult to find. The example of Siri is classic

    - I hate the fact that the “WiFi” hot-key has been made effectively useless because it’s no longer on and off; it’s on or “paused” (switches on by itself at some point in the future)

    - why isn’t there a hot-key for satnav on/off? Rather than it being buried in a menu? And why does it ask if “I’m sure” when I switch it off? S far as I know it’s the only setting that does this

    1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

      Re: Not just security

      Turning off location tracking also prompts for confirmation. I have it off almost always and only turn it on when I'm about to use an app that needs it. Athough I strongly suspect Apple still tracks my location even when I have it off. :(

      1. Rich 2 Silver badge

        Re: Not just security

        Location tracking IS satnav. Just saying

        1. agurney

          Re: Not just security

          Location tracking IS satnav. Just saying

          No it isn't. I'm happy with my GPS receiver telling me where I am whilst not having that information sent to another party.

          1. Dave559

            Re: Not just security

            This was one of the nice things that SailfishOS did (possibly still does - unfortunately my phone bricked itself during an update at one point, damn BTRFS), and possibly(?) also Nokia's Symbian phones before this (I can't remember now): you could decide whether you wanted to use only GPS for positioning or 'network assisted' location services as well, so that you could see where you are on the map without the geopositioning databases being any the wiser (and therefore they would not be able to use your location for ad profiling, etc).

  7. Ace2 Silver badge

    The study uses the rubric “privacy” == “data doesn’t leave device,” from my brief skim. So they’re not trying to differentiate between “synced with your other devices” and “ingested into our giant ad-targeting database,” which is a weird way to look at things.

    1. yetanotheraoc Silver badge

      If you use any OS-provided (or browser-provided) “synced with your other devices” then it most certainly is first and foremost “ingested into our giant ad-targeting database,” before going on to the sync destination.

      Fortunately the old school sneaker-net and/or USB cable still offers privacy. For more convenient operation it's not hard to set up your own NAS; you can even buy one at a big box store.

      1. Ace2 Silver badge

        You are making a lazy assertion which is demonstrably false. When you sync your keychain passwords across devices, Apple does not even have access to the cleartext data.

  8. fPuck

    App Privacy

    I just went through the App Privacy Report. The Photos app apparently went through my contacts 14 hours ago despite the fact that I haven't opened the app in months, and there's no way to disable it. I had a look at the analytics data too. Even though I have it disabled there are still hundreds of pages of analytics data being constantly collected.

  9. Tron Silver badge

    I'm shocked and appalled.

    My grant applications to the University of the Bleeding Obvious for work on string length, whether it is possible to break the cosy relationship between cause and effect, and some groundbreaking work linking students, alcohol consumption and traffic cones were all turned down.

    Seriously, universities should not be funding stuff that geeks and El Reg hacks can do on a wet weekend.

  10. Zibob Bronze badge

    Its almost like that was the plan

    "Centralizing these options would also prevent users from getting frustrated and giving up on finding the settings they're looking for."

    1. Ace2 Silver badge

      Re: Its almost like that was the plan

      Do you want to centralize the privacy settings, and splinter the application settings?

      Or centralize the application settings, and splinter the privacy settings?

      1. Chet Mannly

        Re: Its almost like that was the plan

        It isn't either/or.

        In Android you can change privacy settings in each of the individual app settings or go to the central permissions section of settings and change them for all apps. Does exactly the same thing.

  11. WolfFan

    Hmmm

    I turned Siri off with one click. I did it with the initial setup on installation.

    It is true that I had to repeat the turn-off for each device, and again if I made a major OS update. But again, just one click each time. I have never had Siri running on any Apple device in my possession. Period. Getting rid of Cortuna on MS devices was considerably more annoying. My current Apple desktop, watch, and the phone which talks to that watch no longer get major updates, so Siri is forever banned from them. I may replace the phone this year. Or maybe next year. Maybe. The battery still works acceptably, so there's no rush. Same with the watch.

    Perhaps I’m Doing It Wrong?

  12. doublerot13

    Siri is dog####

    Used to be good - or at least promising - now it's frigging awful.

    All the voice AI/ML stuff is going the same way. Which is weird, coz with LLMs they should be approaching indispensable.

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