10 Things Apple Could do to Increase Privacy.

2019-07-22

Apple under Tim Cook is staking out the claim that they are "the Privacy company".

Apple products are designed to protect your privacy.

At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.

Here's 10 things they could do to actually honor that mission.

1. Disallow Apps from using the camera directly.

This one is problematic but ... the majority of apps that ask to use your camera do not actually need access to your camera. Examples are the Facebook App, The Messenger App, the Twitter App. Even the Instagram App. Instead Apple could change their APIs such that the app asks for a camera picture and the OS takes the picture.

This removes the need to for those apps to have access to the camera at all. The only thing the app would get is the picture you took using the built in camera functionality controlled by the OS itself. If you don't take a picture and pick "Use Picture" then the app never sees anything.

As it is now you really have no idea what the app is doing. When you are in the Facebook app, once you've given the app permission to use the camera then as far as you know the app is streaming video, or pictures to Facebook constantly. You have absolutely no idea.

By changing the API so that the app is required to ask the OS for a photo that problem would be solved.

The problem with this solution is it doesn't cover streaming video since in that case the app needs the constant video. It also doesn't cover unique apps that do special things with the camera.

One solution to the unique camera feature issue would be app store rules. Basically only "camera" apps would be allowed to use the camera directly. SNS apps and other apps that just need a photo would be rejected if they asked for camera permission instead of asking the OS for a photo.

Another solution might be that the OS always ask the user for permission to use the camera (or at least provide the option). In other words if you are in some app like the Instagram app and you click the "take a photo" image the OS asks you "Allow App To Use The Camera?" each and every time. As it is now it only asks once. For those people that are privacy conscious being able to give the app each and every time would prevent spying.

2. Disallow Apps from using the Mic directly

See previous paragraph just replace every instance of "camera" with "mic"

3. Disallow access to all Photos

This is similar to the two above but, as it is now apps like the Facebook App, Twitter, etc will ask for permission to access your photos. They do this so they can provide an interface to let you choose photos to post on facebook or tweet on twitter.

The problem is the moment you give them permission they can immediately look at ALL of your photos. All of them!

It would be better if Apple changed the API so the app asks the OS to ask you to choose 1 or more photos. The OS would then present an interface to choose 1 or more photos at which point only those photos you chose are given to the app.

That way apps could not read all of your photos.

Note that I get that some apps also want permission to read all your photos to enable to upload all of them automatically as you take them. That fine, it should just be a separate permission and Apple should enforce that features that let you choose photos to upload go through the OSes photo chooser and that apps that want full permission to access all photos for things like backup must also function without that permission when selecting photos for other purposes.

4. Let GPS be one time only

There are 3 options for GPS currently

  1. Let the app use GPS always
  2. Let the app use GPS when active
  3. Disallow GPS

There needs to a 4th

  1. Ask for permission each time

As it is, basically if you give an app permission to use GPS at all then every time you access that app it gets to know where you are.

It would be much more privacy oriented if you could choose to only give it GPS access for a moment, next 5 minutes, next 30 minutes, etc...

As it is now if you're privacy conscious you have to dig deep into the settings app for the privacy options. Give an app permission for GPS, then remember to dig through those options again to turn GPS permission back off a few minutes later.

That's not a very privacy oriented design.

5. Disallow apps from implementing an internal web browser.

Many apps show links to websites. For example Twitter or Facebook or the Google Maps app. When you click the links those apps open a web browser directly inside their app.

This means they can spy on everything you do in that web browser. That's not privacy oriented.

Apple should disallow having an internal web browser. They could do this by enforcing a policy that you can only make an app that can access all websites if that app is a web browser app. Otherwise you have to list the sites your app is allowed to access and that list has to be relatively small.

Many apps are actually just an app that goes directly to some company's website which is fine. The app can list company.com or *.company.com as the sites it accesses. Otherwise it's not allowed to access any other websites.

This would force apps to launch the user's browser when they click a link which would mean the apps could no longer spy on your browser activity. The most the could do is know the link you clicked. The couldn't know every link you click after that nor could the log everything you enter on every website you visit while in their app as they can do now.

Note that this would also be better user experience IMO. Users are used to the features available in their browser. For example being able to search in a page. Being able to turn on reader mode. Being able to bookmark and have those bookmarks sync. Being able to use an ad blocker. Etc... As it is when an app uses an internal web browser all of these features are not available. It's inconsistent and inconvenient for the user. By forcing apps to launch the user's browser all of that is solved.

Note: Apple should also allow setting a default browser so that users can choose Firefox or Brave or Chrome or whatever browser the choose for the features they want. If I use Firefox on my Mac I want to be able to bookmark things on iOS and have those bookmarks synced to my Mac but that becomes cumbersome if the OS keeps launching Safari instead of Firefox or whatever my browser of choice is.

6. Put a light on the camera/mic?

In Japan there is a law that phone cameras must make a shutter noise. I actually despise that law. I want to be able to take pictures of my delicious gourmet meal in a quiet fancy restaurant without alerting and annoying all the other guests that I'm doing so. Japan claims this is to prevent perverts from taking up skirt pictures but perverts can just buy non-phone cameras and they can use an app because apps are not bound by the same laws so in effect this law does absolutely nothing except make it annoying and embarrassing to take pictures in quiet places.

On the other hand, if there was a small green, or orange light next to the camera that was physically connected to the camera's power so that it came on when the camera is on then I'd know when the camera was in use which would at least be a privacy oriented feature and so unlike the law above it would have a point.

If they wanted to be cute they could use a multi-color LED where red = camera is on, green = mic is on, yellow = both are on.

Let me add, I wish Apple devices had a built in camera cover or at least the Macs. I know you can buy a 3rd party one but adding a built in cover would show Apple is serious above Privacy.

7. Disallow scanning WiFi / Bluetooth for most apps

AFAIK any app can scan WiFi and or bluetooth. Apps can use this info to know your location even if you have GPS off.

Basically there are databases of every WiFi's SSID (the name you pick to connect to a WiFi hotspot/router) and the databases also have recorded that WiFi's GPS so if they know which WiFis are near then they basically know where you are.

Here's a website where you can see what I'm talking about. Zoom in anywhere in the world and it will show the known WiFi hotspots / routers.

https://wigle.net/

Why do most apps need this ability? They don't? Why doesn't Apple disallow it for most apps?

There are exceptions. I have a Wifi scanner app and a WiFi signal strength app and even a Bluetooth scanner and testing app that are very useful but Apple could easily have an App Store policy that only network utilities are allowed to use this powerful spying feature.

There is absolutely no reason the Twitter app or the Facebook app need to be able to see WiFi SSIDs nor local bluetooth devices.

Apple could easily add a permission requirement to use these features and only allow select apps have them. OR they could add it as yet another per app privacy setting.

8. Allow more Browser engines

This one is probably the most controversial suggestion here. The reasoning though goes like this

Safari is not even remotely the most secure browser.

This is provable by looking through the National Vulnerability Database (NVD) run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

In it you can see that while all browsers have around the same amount of vulnerabilities the types of vulnerabilities are different. Some browsers are designed to be more secure and so are less likely to have vulnerabilities that compromises your device and therefore your privacy. To put it slight more concretely 2 browsers might both have 150 vulnerabilities a year but one might have 90% code execution vulnerabilities (your device and data are compromised) and the other might have 90% DOS vulnerabilities (your device slows down or freezes but no data is compromised). If you check the database you'll find it's true that some browsers have orders of magnitude more code execution vulnerabilities than others.

By allowing competing browser engines users would have the choice to run those empirically more secure browser engines.

As it is now Safari has zero competition on iOS. A developer can make a new browser but it's really just Safari with a skin. That means Apple has less competition and so there is less pressure to make Safari better.

Allowing competing browsers engines would both be win for privacy and encourage faster and more development of Safari.

The number 1 objection I hear is that allowing other engines is a security issue but that is also provably false. See the NVD above. Other engines are more secure. By disallowing other engines you prevent users from protecting themselves from being hacked and therefore having their privacy invaded.

Another objection I hear is JITing, turing JavaScript into code, is something only Apple should be able to do. That argument basically boils down to Apple's app sandbox is insecure and that all apps must be 100% perfect or else they can escape the sandbox. You can't have it both ways. Either Apple's app sandbox is insecure and therefore the whole product is insecure OR Apple's app sandbox is secure and therefore allowing JITing doesn't affect that security. Now of course Apple's app sandbox could have bugs but those bugs can be exploited by any app. The solution is for Apple to be diligent and fix the bugs quickly and timely. The solution is not to make up some bogus JIT restriction.

To make an analogy if a product advertises as waterproof then it better actually waterproof. It can't come with some disclaimer that says "waterproof to 100meters but don't actually put this product in water as it might break".

The JIT argument is basically the same. "Our app sandbox is secure but don't actually run any code". It's clear the JIT argument is bogus. It's exists only to allow Apple a monopoly on browsers on iOS so they don't have to compete and so they can wield veto power over all browser standards. Since only they can make new browser features available to their 1.4 billion iOS devices if they don't support a feature it might as well not exist. Since devs can't use the feature with those 1.4 billion devices they generally just avoid the feature altogether even on non iOS devices.

All that is the long way of saying users would be more secure and get better privacy if they could run more secure and more privacy oriented browsers.

9. Lower the price of Apple products or come out with cheaper alternatives

Apple fans won't like this reason. I don't consider myself an Apple fan and yet I own a Macbook Air, a Macbook Pro, a Mac Mini, an iPad Air 3rd Generation, an iPhone6+, an iPhoneX, an Apple TV 4 and at one point I also owned late 2018 iPad Pro and 4th Gen Apple Watch so clearly I also like Apple even if I don't consider myself a fanatic.

The thing is Apple is expensive. People will argue Apple's quality is high and worth the price and that might be true but it's kind of beside the point. You could make the argument a BMW or Mercedes Benz is a higher quality car than a Kia or a Hyundai but someone who only has a budget for a used Kia or Hyundai it's not realistic to ask them to buy an BMW or Mercedes

Similarly if you have a family of 4 and you want to give everyone in the family their own laptop computer you can buy 4 Windows laptops for the price of the cheapest Mac laptop. Sure those $200-$300 laptops are not nearly as nice as a Macbook Air but just like a Kia will still get you to your job a $250 Windows laptop will still let you browse the internet, run Microsoft Word, Illustrator, Photoshop, listen to music, watch youtube, edit a blog, read reddit, learn to program, etc.... It's unrealistic to ask a family of four to spend $4400 for 4 mac laptops instead of $1200 for 4 windows laptops.

Now you might be thinking so what… people who can afford should be able to spend their money on whatever they want. That's no different than anything else. Rich people buy penthouses just off Central Park and poor people live in trailer parks. The difference though is for most expensive things there are functionally equivalent inexpensive alternatives. A Kia will get you to work just as well as a BMW. Cheap clothing from Old Navy or Uniqlo or H&M will cloth you just as well as clothing from Versace or Prada or Louis Vuitton or pick you favorite but expensive brand. The food at Applebees will feed you just as well as the food from French Laundry. A $250 Vizio TV will let you watch TV just as functionally as a $4000 Sony.

But, if Apple really is the only privacy oriented option, if Android and Windows don't take your privacy seriously, then Apple being out of reach of so many people is … well I don't know what words to use basically say that people that can't afford Apple don't deserve privacy.

Of course that's not Apple's fault. Microsoft for Windows and Google for Android could step up and start making their OSes stop sucking for privacy.

My only point is if Apple is "the privacy company" then at the moment they are really "the privacy company for non-poor people" only and that they could be the privacy company for everyone if they offered some more affordable alternatives.

10. Stop asking for passwords to repair

If you take your Apple device into repair they will ask you for your password or passcode. What the actual Effing Eff!??? Privacy? What? What's that? No, give us the password that unlocks all of your bank accounts, shopping accounts, bitcoin accounts, etc. Give us the password that lets us look at all your photos and videos. Give us the password that gives us access to the email on your device so that we can use that to open all other accounts by asking for password resets. Give us the password for the device that has all your two-factor codes and apps that confirm login on various services.

This is Apple's default stance. If you take a device in for service they will ask you for your password or passcode. That is not the kind of policy a privacy first company would have!

If you object they might tell you to change your password to something else and then change it back after you've gotten the repaired device back. That helps them not to know your normal password. It doesn't prevent all the stuff above.

If it's a Mac they'll give you the option to either turn on the guest account or add another account for them to login. Unfortunately that's really no better. If you're actually privacy oriented you'll have encrypted the hard drive. Giving them a password that unlocks the drive effectively gives them access to all your data whether or not a particular account has access to that data.

You can opt out of that too in which case they'll basically throw up their hands and say "In that case we may not be able to confirm the repairs". Another option is you can format the drive before giving it to them. Is that really the only option a privacy orient company should give you?

Now I get it, I'm sympathetic to the fact that it's harder for them if you don't give them the password. Still, for a Mac they can plug in an external drive and boot off that and at least confirm the machine itself is fine. For an iOS device, if they really are a "Privacy First" company then they need to find another way. They need to design a way to service the products that doesn't risk your privacy and risk exposing all your data.

Do I trust Apple as a company? Mostly. Do I trust every $15 an hour employee at the store like the one asking for password? No! Do I even trust some repair technician making more money but who may be getting paid on the side to scoop up login credentials? No! Do I know they destroy the info when the repair is finished? Nope! They ask you to write it down. As far a I know I could go dig through the trash behind an Apple store and find tons of credentials. Also as far as I know it's all stored in their service database ready to be stolen or hacked.

A privacy first company would do something different. They might for example backup your entire hard drive or iDevice, then reformat it, work on it, then restore. They might put it all on a USB drive, and hand the drive to you, you bring it back when they're done with any physical repairs and they restore it then and reformat the drive. If that's too slow then that's just incentive for them to make it faster. The might add some special service partition or service mode they can boot devices into.

The point is, a company that claims to take privacy seriously shouldn't be asking you to tell them the single most important password in your life. The password that unlocks all other passwords.


I'm not really hopeful Apple will make these changes but I'd argue if they don't make them then their statements of

Apple products are designed to protect your privacy.

At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right.

Is really just marketing and not at all real. Let's hope it is real and they take more steps to increase user privacy.

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