What Apple knows about you
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
Apple pitches itself as the most privacy-minded of the big tech companies, and indeed it goes to great lengths to collect less data than its rivals. Nonetheless, the iPhone maker will still know plenty about you if you use many of its services: In particular, Apple knows your billing information and all the digital and physical goods you have bought from it, including music, movie and app purchases.
A different approach: But even for heavy users, Apple uses a number of techniques to either minimize how much data it has or encrypt it so that Apple doesn't have access to iMessages and similar personal communications.
Between the lines: Apple is able to do this, in part, because it makes its money from selling hardware, and increasingly from selling services, rather than through advertising. (It does have some advertising business, and it also gets billions of dollars per year from Google in exchange for being Apple's default search provider.)
- But Apple maintains that its commitment to privacy is based not just on its business model but on core values.
How it works: In order to collect less data, Apple tries to do as much work on its devices as possible, even if that sometimes means algorithms aren't as well tuned, processing is slower, or the same work gets done on multiple devices.
- Photos are a case in point. Even if you store your images in Apple's iCloud, Apple does the work of facial identification, grouping, labeling and tagging images on the Mac or iOS device, rather than on the service's own computers.
- Some of the most sensitive data that your device collects, including your fingerprint or Face ID, stay on the device.
While Apple does need to do some processing in the cloud, it takes a number of steps to protect privacy beyond its competitors. First, the identification and management of significant locations like your home and work is done on the device. And the location information that does get sent up to the cloud is tied to a unique identifier code rather than a specific individual's identity — and that identifier changes over time.
Beyond Apple's Maps program, other applications, including some from Apple, can make use of location data with user permission. Apple is adding new options with iOS 13, due this coming fall, including:
- The ability for users to share their location with an app just once, rather than giving ongoing access.
- For apps that are making routine background use of location, Apple is also letting users review a map of the locations these apps are seeing, so they can decide if that is information they really want to be sharing.
If you get your mail provided by Apple (via icloud.com, mac.com, etc.), the company will store your email and will scan it for spam, viruses and child pornography, as is common in the industry. Email will also be made available to law enforcement when Apple is presented with a lawful warrant.
This is the area where Apple stores potentially the most personal information, although it doesn't make use of it for advertising or other business purposes. iCloud backups can include messages, photos and Apple email, though Apple stresses it won't look at the information and will only hand it over to others if forced by a court to do so.
Apple messages, the ones with the blue bubble, are encrypted end-to-end, so that only the sender and recipient can see them — not Apple, nor a carrier or any other intermediary. However, if you back up your messages to iCloud, a copy is kept on Apple's servers so if you lose your device and need to replace it, Apple you can restore them. Users can make an encrypted back up using iTunes on a Mac or PC, or keep no backup at all.
If you use Apple's Safari browser, Apple stores your bookmarks tied to your Apple ID; they're encrypted, but Apple holds a key. Beginning in iOS 13 and Catalina, the next MacOS, Safari browsing history will be fully encrypted and Apple will have no access.
There's also data that goes to Apple's search partners. Google is the default, but you can also choose Yahoo, Bing or DuckDuckGo. You can also choose whether to send each keystroke as you type in the search bar, enabling autocomplete, or just to send the data when you hit "enter."
Many Apple devices have a chip that is listening for the "Hey Siri" wake word, but it's only at that point that Apple starts recording audio. Some commands, like what's next on your schedule, can be processed locally, while others do get sent to Apple's servers. Apple doesn't tie this data directly to a person's Apple ID, but uses a unique identifier. A user can reset that identifier, but then Siri will lose the personalization it has gained.
Per Apple, "User voice recordings are saved for a six-month period so that the recognition system can utilize them to better understand the user’s voice. After six months, another copy is saved, without its identifier, for use by Apple in improving and developing Siri for up to two years."
Apple doesn't store your payment information or purchase record as part of Apple Pay (It does have history and payment information for your Apple purchases). Apple Pay merchants get a token, not your actual credit card information.
TV and Music
Apple knows the music, shows and apps you purchase. In addition, in order to deliver on the feature of the TV App that allows users to pick up where they left off across multiple shows, multiple apps, and multiple devices, and to make personalized recommendations, Apple does capture and store viewing history. But it says it notifies users, stores as little data as possible for as little time as possible, and allows users to opt out (although this prevents some features from fully working).
What you can do
- Users have a number of choices to further minimize what Apple knows, though there are often downsides. You can choose to download an encrypted iCloud backup only to your Mac or PC rather than keep it on Apple's server, but if you lose that device or forget the password for the backup file, Apple won't be able to help recover lost data.
- You can also download the information Apple has on you at privacy.apple.com.
- You can delete data stored on your device, such as email, messages, photos, and Safari data like history and bookmarks.
- You can delete your data stored on iCloud.
- You can reset your Siri identifier by turning Siri and Dictation off and back on, which effectively restarts your relationship with Siri and Dictation.
Go deeper: Read the rest of the series.