Unlike Facebook, Google and Amazon, Apple proudly proclaims that it “doesn’t gather your personal information to sell to advertisers or other organizations.”
The company uses its alternative approach to privacy as a marketing tool, telling consumers that e-mails, direct messages and internet clicks aren’t monitored by Apple.
However, what it has built is a system that’s been exploited by others for tracking. In speeches, Apple CEO Tim Cook decries privacy abuses by Silicon Valley rivals but hasn’t changed its systems to stop them in their tracks.
As we’ve shown in this series, both Facebook and Google use location tracking on the iPhone (and Androids) to follow your every move, even if you don’t have their apps open. Savvy consumers may want to go into Settings on their iPhone or Android phones to click and deny access to Facebook and Google.
“If I were only to compare the privacy of iOS and Android as operating systems, iOS is the clear winner,” said Paul Bischoff, a privacy advocate with Comparitech.com. “Yes, it collects personal data, but that data is not sold to third parties. Unlike Google, Apple is not an advertising company and does not need to share your data with third parties to make money.”
But when it comes to apps, he said, the difference is not so clear.
“Both iOS and Android apps can collect personal information from users and, in turn, use that data for marketing, advertising, and analytics,” Bischoff said. “Users are expected to judge for themselves whether they want to share their data with the app developer through the use of permissions. Both Android and iOS give users a clear list of permissions prior to installing an app.”
Will Straf, the developer of the $10-a-month anti-snooping Guardian Firewall app, says Apple deserves praise for a more robust approach to privacy than Facebook and Google but says it could do even more.
For instance, he cites on his website instances of apps that abused Apple’s policies and tracked people without their knowledge, including popular apps for weather, gas prices and parking.
“Apple could be doing more,” he says. “These apps got a slap on the wrist. They should have been banned from the App Store. That would get a reaction from developers that this type of behavior won’t be tolerated.”
Apple responds that it does, indeed, take action against apps the company learns violate its policies by removing them from the App Store.
On the privacy section of its website, Apple points out that any of personal features we use on our iPhones and iPads are done on the device, not in the Cloud, meaning that Apple’s eyes aren’t part of the process. The biometrics of Face ID or Touch ID that open the phone run right there on the device; processors inside the iPhone that organize and tag our photos are not done in the Cloud.
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While Google tracks you via your phone for more precise mapping information in its Maps app, Apple notes how you don’t have to sign in to use the app and that personalized features are created on the device. “The data that Maps collects while you use the app – like search terms, navigation routing, and traffic information – is associated with random identifiers so it can’t be tied to your Apple ID,” Apple says.
(Critics could argue that Google’s approach produces a better app. A survey of map users by TheManifest.com said Google Maps was preferred by 67% of users, compared to 12% for Google-owned Waze and 11% for Apple.)
All information collected by Apple is encrypted, the company says.
Where Apple does take a more aggressive approach to our information is on its Music and TV apps, Apple Music and the Apple TV set-top box. It monitors what you watch, listen to and what apps you open and uses the information to make personalized recommendations. But “the songs you stream aren’t used by any other service to advertise to you,” Apple says.
The Apple TV box has settings to disable tracking and the sale of personalized ads.
In the fall upgrade to the iOS operating system, Apple is introducing several new security features, including notifications to users when an app starts using your location in the background and a new “Allow Once” setting which will only give the app location data for the user’s first session. The alerts provide transparency and show where an app has been accessing your location when it is in the background, says Apple.
Apple is also introducing a Single Sign-on feature, similar to Facebook and Google, letting people bypass passwords and instead use biometrics to gain access to websites and apps. Apple says it will be more security friendly than rivals and notes that if an app maker wants our e-mail address, Apple will create a new, scrambled one that only the app-maker can see, leaving your real address private.
Apple had no comment beyond what is published on its website.
There, Apple says it requires app developers to adhere to “strict guidelines,” to protect privacy. “If we learn that an app violates these guidelines, the developer must address the issue or face removal from the App Store.”
“It’s worth mentioning that Google Play doesn’t vet apps as meticulously as the Apple App Store,” noted Comparitech.com’s Bischoff, “so Android tends to be more susceptible to malware and other security threats.”
Apple declined to offer executives for comment.
Follow USA TODAY’s Jefferson Graham (@jeffersongraham) on Twitter, Instagram and YouTube.