Apple didn’t unveil any new hardware at WWDC 2018, but they did introduce some interesting new privacy features for iOS 12 and the new macOS Mojave. While this part of their demonstration was particularly focused on additions to their Intelligent Tracking Prevention (the anti-tracking tools that first appeared in High Sierra), they are tightening up a few other areas as well, like passwords and app permissions. None of these are really revolutionary changes, but they do two things very well: they make complex privacy concepts accessible to average users, and they show that Apple is trying to put itself out in front of the privacy debate.
What are these new features?
- Cookie warnings: if a website tries to access your Safari browser cookies (little pieces of data that websites use to track you), Safari will automatically notify you and ask for your permission. What’s interesting is that this includes third-party cookies, which are things like Facebook’s Like button – it’s embedded on a non-Facebook site but is still sending data about you back to the company. iOS 12 and Mojave will both notify users about these and restrict what they can do on pages.
- Anti-fingerprinting: Fingerprinting hasn’t made many headlines yet, but it is possibly even more invasive than third-party cookies. Websites scan for information they can use to identify you – browser, operating system, installed fonts, plug-ins, etc. – and put it all together to create a tracking profile. Apple’s new versions of Safari are aiming to make your browser indistinguishable from any other Mac user, making your browser’s fingerprint harder to track.
- Password managers/auditing: Apple is getting into the password-management game, making it easy for you to randomly generate and store secure passwords across devices. It can even analyze your choice of passwords and, if you’re reusing one, give you a heads-up that maybe you should think of something different.
- Tighter access control: We’re used to having adjustable app permissions on our phones, so why not our computers as well? Apple is building permissioning systems into Mojave, requiring user permission before allowing programs to access cameras, microphones, email, browsing data, and other personal information.
How useful are they?
The biggest perk of these new features is how user-friendly they are. Apple has always been good at organically integrating complex features, and one of the reasons their products are popular is that you don’t have to think too much about how to improve your experience. Unless you care deeply about privacy, though, your daily life won’t change much when you upgrade to Mojave/iOS 12. You’ll just get a few more “OK” buttons to click and a few more boxes to check. In the long run, though, these upgrades will let more users keep their data where they want it.
If you’re really into online security, though, you’ll also notice some missing features. Apple hasn’t announced any plans to stop third-party scripts from tracking you, and pixel tracking is still around as well. Browsers like Firefox, Chrome, Opera, or Brave still offer more options for anyone who wants maximum browsing protection.
Conclusion: What’s Apple up to with all this?
Apple has been upping their privacy game for quite a while now, and while they’re not necessarily better at it, they are one of the few major tech companies out there that doesn’t really monetize your data. Apple ensures that whatever it has on you isn’t personally identifiable (Differential Privacy), encrypts your messages by default, maintains strict standards for their app ecosystem, and has been putting limits on third-party cookies since macOS Sierra and iOS 11. Of course, they’re not perfect. They’ve had their share of breaches and data troubles, but they’ve even bucked the FBI’s authority when asked to violate user privacy in the past.
With Cambridge Analytica still fresh on everyone’s minds, Apple has found itself in a great position to market their privacy practices as a valuable part of their products. They’ve also raised some eyebrows by announcing their intention to tackle the problem of technology addiction with tools that help you monitor how much you’re using your phone – again, with a nod to social media services like Instagram that would like you to spend more time with them.
Of course, pretty much everything Apple is doing can already be done by anyone with a little paranoia and an intermediate level of general Internet knowledge, but not everyone has the time or energy to become an expert in online security. Apple has been falling a little behind the curve on the hardware front, as computers and phones are gradually converging towards the same high standards, but user-friendly privacy may turn out to be one of their most appealing new features.