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Apple is walking a fine line between privacy and convenience

OPINION: Chris Smith believes Apple outperforms rivals in keeping user data safe and unexploited. However, recent moves showcase a slight hint of convenience over privacy creeping in.

Apple has done an excellent job in recent times of honing its image as a company that will always put customer privacy first. It’s a central tenet of Apple’s marketing strategy and it isn’t just words; the claims play out in policy. The opt-out for ad-tracking added in iOS 14.5 and the so-called data nutrition labels added in iOS 14, are just a couple of recent examples.

Apple is in a somewhat unique position and has maximised its opportunities to point out the differences with rivals. The Silicon Valley giant maintains its business does not rely on maximising user data to sell targeted advertisements, unlike Google and Facebook for example.

If the FBI or any other law enforcement agency wants your phone unlocked, Apple will send them packing. It has no problem with upsetting powerful rivals like Facebook and others over its opt-in policies for app tracking. CEO Tim Cook will go head-to-head with anyone on the matter.

However, a couple of recent developments give the distinct impression that convenience for users could supersede potential privacy concerns in ways we wouldn’t usually expect from Apple. The two examples are the new ability to unlock an iPhone while wearing a face mask (if you’re also wearing one of the best Apple Watch models) and the chink of light left open for the abuse of Apple’s AirTag item trackers by potentially controlling partners.

Both are optional features/purchases, but both tread a fine line from a privacy perspective. 

Apple Watch out for strangers

Let’s start with the iPhone/Apple Watch feature, released with iOS 14.5 last month. It sounds perfect. If you’re wearing your Apple Watch rocking the latest version of watchOS you can bypass pulling your mask down to use Face ID or entering your Passcode to unlock the phone – avoiding a nuisance induced by the pandemic.

The problem is, Apple didn’t quite explain that allowing this option isn’t the safest thing in the world. Instead of identifying you wearing the mask, Face ID just identifies the presence of a mask and opens the phone. 

The safeguard sends a notification to the smartwatch, allowing you to lock the phone with a quick tap if someone other than you has opened it. Sounds good right?

If you’re one of those people who instantly look at their Apple Watch whenever they get a notification (have you ever had dinner with those people? It’s infuriatingly rude), this isn’t a problem. However, if you’re not, then an intruder could have free rein over for phone for long enough to do some real damage before you see your phone has been unlocked. Heaven forbid you fall asleep with this setting enabled and your phone gets into the wrong hands.

We get this is optional and Apple isn’t forcing people to enable this feature. It’s purely to enable convenience and lessen the size of the chore of wearing the masks that help to keep our fellow citizens safe.

However, Apple could have been more upfront than it has about the potential drawbacks. Just last weekend I spoke to a cashier at a clothes shop who was excited about using it. I told him about the caveat and he was immediately less enthused.

Apple Watch SE

AirTags tagging more than just items?

Last week, as early reviews for the Apple AirTag item trackers came in, some reviewers like the Washington Post’s Geoffrey Fowler argued safeguards put in place by Apple to protect people from the obvious stalking risks (especially from abusive partners looking to keep tabs on whereabouts) were not strong enough, with some exploits still possible.

Fowler wrote: “AirTags are a new means of inexpensive, effective stalking. I know because I tested AirTags by letting a Washington Post colleague pretend to stalk me.”

Fowler found that in the main, Apple had nullified most of the concerns. Apple has already explained that an unknown AirTag found on your person, you will be notified by your iPhone (or it will sound an alarm directly if you’re on Android) and there are easy instructions for disabling the trackers.

However, he added it could still be leveraged by stalkers or abusive partners if the victim does not have 100% full control over their phone. Criticism from such an illustrious mainstream publication in the US is liable to have an effect on those considering an AirTag purchase.

Fowler pointed out: “An AirTag starts a three-day countdown clock on its alarm as soon as it’s out of the range of the iPhone it’s paired with. Since many victims live with their abusers, the alert countdown could be reset each night when the owner of the AirTag comes back into its range.”

“Also troubling: There’s an option in the Find My app to turn off all of these “item safety alerts” — and adjusting it doesn’t require entering your PIN or password. People in abusive situations don’t always have total control over their phones.”

Apple AirTag

While Apple has almost nailed AirTags, there are a couple of things still to work on. However, we’re living in a different world now where there is less tolerance for not getting this right immediately. The awareness surrounding domestic abuse and the efforts to eradicate violence towards and harassment of women are greater than ever. Anything that can be used to enable this kind of behaviour in any way is worthy of calling out – including the technology, much of which can used to keep people safe from such threats.

In many ways it’s tough for Apple. I don’t recall any other item trackers being held to the same level of scrutiny or there being any stalking concerns raised about rivals. However, that comes with the territory of being the world’s biggest company, as well as a leader in the technology world.

This kind of reaction to AirTags, from a privacy perspective, is probably Apple’s toughest challenge since the infamous and devastating iCloud leak of 2014, which saw the private images of celebrities stolen and published on the web. Apple learned lessons from that.

Apple has since built a strong reputation as a privacy-focused company and it’s a message that is clearly resonating with the public who’re finally seeing the effects of the clandestine data collection habits of the tech firms we use every day.

However, the last month has provided enough evidence to suggest that Apple must continue to walk the on the right ride of the fine line. It must stay a company that has your back from a privacy perspective, while seeking to boost convenience when necessary.

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