With iOS 14, Apple is going after rogue apps to keep user data safe and that is great
Shubham Verma July 7, 2020
Apple's promise for better privacy on iOS has mostly revolved around the comparison between the iPhone's operating system and its popular counterpart Android. The company has talked about how iOS is a safer bet than Android and why privacy is at the helm of anything that the iPhone is commanded to do. But with the latest iOS 14, which is beta right now and will hit iPhones as a wide release in the coming months, Apple is upping the ante and going after not only rogue apps but also disingenuous and dishonest apps.
I have been using iOS 14 since it was released for developers last month and have managed to delve into the new functionalities and tools that it has. For privacy on my iPhone, I was looking for the features that Apple's software chief Craig Federighi highlighted while demonstrating the iOS 14. They include new tracking controls, alerts on when a privacy-centric functionality is used, and granular controls for how location services are used by apps.
The first tool I came across as soon as I began using iOS 14 was "precise location". In iOS 13, the system would keep pestering you with frequent alerts on what app is using what location setting and if you plan to change that. As much as these alerts have troubled iPhone users, they have proved nifty in terms of assuring privacy. With iOS 14, that assurance has reached another level. The same alert now has a toggle to turn precise location on or off.
I can now control if I want to give the precise location of my iPhone to an app or if providing the same app with broad -- and not precise -- location information will be enough. This, in particular, will turn out to be a strict parameter for the apps that ask for the device's location data.
I use a lot of apps that need my iPhone's location to offer me relevant results. For example, the Zomato app needs my exact location for delivery of my food. However, I have a plethora of other apps that also require location data but not for something like doorstep delivery. These apps need a proximate location of the device to suggest items they offer, for example, Google app or the Paytm app. I would anytime choose to give a vague location to these apps over providing them with my exact location.
Moreover, the precise location tool works with websites in Safari that aim to track my iPhone. I can snub the requests from these websites aside with the tool or choose to provide them with my vague location instead.
The setting can be found under the Location Services option under the Privacy tab in the Settings of the iPhone running iOS 14. The precise location feature can be turned on or off app-wise in the settings.
Now, after I was done learning about the location services that iOS 14 has to offer, I tinkered with another feature that Apple says will encompass robust privacy on the iPhone. It is related to the iPhone's photo gallery and access to it. Earlier, each app would ask to access the storage of the iPhone -- it was either All or Nothing. I could not choose only a set of photos that I can allow some apps to access. But iOS 14 is making that possible for me.
When an app tries to access the photos on the iPhone, an alert pops up asking me if I want to give full access, no access, or access to only a handful of photos. By far this is the best feature since it lets me choose about 10-15 photos from the Photos app that I would gladly allow apps such as Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook to access. For WhatsApp, I have granted it full access to my Photos app.
The best thing about the tool is that the selection of photos to be accessed by apps can be changed anytime. In fact, the pop-up appears on the screen quite often -- which sometimes is annoying -- to ask me if I want to keep my selection or make changes to it. The tool can be accessed in Settings > Privacy > Photos for each app.
Next up was a feature that was less of a tool and more of a permission summary. iOS 14 tracks all the apps that access the camera and microphone and tells me their names at the top of the Control Centre. For when I am using the microphone or camera in an app, the notifications are quite obvious and not alarming. But, otherwise, I was surprised to see the intermittent usages by Facebook, Instagram, and Google apps to access my iPhone's microphone. I immediately stopped the access these apps had.
Apart from naming and shaming the app by mentioning it on the top of the Control Centre, the iOS 14 also shows a dot on the right-hand side corner whenever an app accesses the camera or microphone. It is orange for microphone and green for the camera. Now that I am mostly in the know of which app is accessing the camera and microphone on my iPhone, I tread more carefully with apps.
While all these features have helped in figuring out the tidbits of how some apps have tried to invade my iPhone's privacy, one feature particularly stands out. The iOS 14 sends an alert for when an app tries to access the clipboard data, raising some serious questions about how some apps work. I have been specifically surprised to see how some apps, which should not need anything from the clipboard, are accessing it blatantly and possibly storing that information to use it later in ways that can be feared to be related to target advertising.
I know a few apps need to access the clipboard data for nifty features as "Paste & Go" in browsers but that is a use case instead of privacy violation for these apps explicitly state these actions. I have seen Google, Safari, and Firefox access the clipboard data and throw everything up when I tap the search bar. These apps aside, I have found many apps that do need to access the clipboard data unless explicitly allowed, for example, TikTok, LinkedIn, and Truecaller. And I am not the only one to have noticed the absurdity of these apps -- there are complaints and reports galore on Twitter and Reddit.
There is no way to stop these apps from accessing the clipboard data and I am not sure if Apple would add a setting to even control this. But, for now, these actions do not go unnoticed by me, thanks to iOS 14.
For what it is worth, the new features from Apple on iOS 14 give an insight into how privacy can become one of the mainstays for the mobile operating systems that have so far been marketed for just their features. If Apple can implement some extended versions of these features in the final iOS 14 build, it will be a full clampdown on the privacy-invading apps. And maybe Android will take its cue too.