Onstage at Apple's Worldwide Developers Conference (WWDC), the company's senior VP for software engineering, Craig Federighi, told the audience that "at Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right." It's not the first time anyone watching would have likely heard that from an Apple executive. Tim Cook, Apple's CEO, has made a point of repeating the phrase publicly almost every chance he gets.
Usually, it's when he talks about the difference between Apple and other tech companies that track users and monetize their personal information. It's how Apple explains features like App Store's Privacy Nutrition Labels and App Tracking Transparency, which requires developers to request permission from users before tracking them or collecting data. Both of those features were a part of iOS 14, the most recent software that powers the iPhone.
With the next version of the company's operating systems, Apple is taking things a step further. "We don't think you should have to make a tradeoff between great features and privacy," said Federighi. "We believe you deserve both."
Those five words, "we believe you deserve both," are fundamental to Apple's privacy position. It's a position that starts with the belief that if you can't build a product or service without giving people the ability to opt out of tracking or data collection, you shouldn't build it.
As a result, with just those five words, Apple put every developer on notice that it is all in on giving users transparency about how their apps are tracking users. And--maybe even more important--it's all in on giving them a choice in the matter.
I do want to be clear that there are a lot of developers that absolutely respect user privacy and resist the temptation to collect data they don't need just because they could sell it to someone who might use it for other purposes. But Apple made it clear that it has no plans to stop making it harder than ever for developers that depend on tracking.
Specifically, Apple outlined three features that highlight the effort it is putting into protecting user privacy:
The first feature is a part of what Apple is calling iCloud+. Basically, iCloud+ is just a new name for paid iCloud plans--as opposed to the free 5GB of storage Apple gives all iPhone users--with a few new features added. This feature, called Private Relay, protects your data by encrypting it and routing it through servers that hide your activity from your ISP, or anyone else who might be interested in tracking what you do online.
Technically, Private Relay isn't a VPN, but the idea is basically the same. Apple says that it will route your data through two sets of servers so that not even Apple can know what you're doing online.
I think this feature is great, but it isn't going to kill third-party VPN tools. Private Relay only works in Safari, so it isn't going to cover anything you might be using privacy-focused VPNs for. For example, you want to protect all of your internet traffic, or because you want to appear as though you are somewhere else and to bypass network level restrictions like censorship, you'll have to continue using a service like ExpressVPN.
Mail Privacy Protection
Continuing Apple's crusade against digital advertising, the company is now taking email marketing. Honestly, it might be one of the more significant things Apple announced this week. The default Apple Mail app will give users the option of blocking tracking pixels in the emails they receive. Users are given a choice the first time they launch the app in iOS 15.
Email marketers use these pixels to identify when someone has opened an email, and to reveal their IP address, which allows them to see where the recipient is located. There are valid reasons for wanting to know whether someone opens an email, most obviously so that you can tell whether your marketing efforts are effective.
But, considering that most people have no idea the pixels even exist, this feature is certainly consistent with Apple's overall efforts to give users a choice as to whether they want to allow apps and services to track them. The reason I think it's so significant is two-fold.
First, Apple is able to bring these practices out of the dark and into the light. Most people aren't aware of just how many ways they are being tracked, and when Apple starts talking about it, people tend to pay attention.
Finally, Apple is forcing the digital marketing industry to make changes to be more privacy-protective. It may be a painful shift for an industry that depends so heavily on data, but it's a necessary one.
App Privacy Reports
Finally, Apple is introducing App Privacy Reports that mirror what it did for websites last year. This will show you, on a per-app basis, what data the app is allowed to track, and how often it has done so.
It will also show you exactly where apps are sending the data they track, so you can have a better idea of how your information is being used. With Privacy Nutrition Labels, developers had to disclose what data they collect about users, and how it's used. With App Tracking Transparency, they had to ask permission before they could collect their data. Now, with App Privacy Reports, developers are on notice that Apple intends to keep them honest.
And that's actually good for everyone. It's good for users because it gives them information in a way that makes sense. It's good for Apple because it reinforces its fundamental value of privacy. And it's good for developers because it provides them accountability, and gives honest developers a form of validation that they are protecting users.