Apple ups data privacy controls in growing spat with Facebook

Apple CEO Tim Cook at the Apple Worldwide Developer conference in San Jose. Photo: Reuters
Apple executives rarely call out Facebook, but they made more moves on Monday to limit the social network’s data collection. In iPhone, iPad, and Mac software updates later this year, Apple’s default Safari web browser will show a pop-up window asking users for permission before loading share buttons from social networks including Facebook. These buttons make it easy to share web content, but they also let social networks collect user data — something Apple has been cracking down on in recent years.

This would also apply to tools such as like buttons and the comment sections of social networks, Apple executive Craig Federighi demonstrated during a presentation at the company’s annual developer conference.

Apple also showcased a new system that makes it more difficult to gather information about users as they browse across the web. When people visit sites, the characteristics of their device can be used by advertisers to create a “fingerprint” to track them. Safari will share a “simplified” profile to thwart this, Apple said.

The changes are not Apple’s most expansive in the privacy space, simply an evolution. Last year, the company launched an Intelligent Tracking system that makes it more difficult for advertisers to follow users around the web. Still, Monday’s announcements are another step in a brewing spat with Facebook over privacy and data collection.

While Facebook wasn’t mentioned during Monday’s keynote, Apple has criticised the social network operator recently. Lax policies around sharing data with third parties led to the leak of Facebook user information to consultancy Cambridge Analytica, which worked on Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook said in March that he “wouldn’t be in this situation” if he were in Mark Zuckerberg’s shoes. The Facebook CEO called the criticism “extremely glib”.

Earlier this year, Apple added a new privacy panel to its operating systems, explaining in plain language why, how, and what data is collected from Apple devices and by specific applications. While Facebook generates revenue from ads targeted with detailed information about users, Apple makes most of its money selling hardware products.

New App Store rules aimed at streaming PC-based games

Apple on Monday issued new review guidelines for its lucrative App Store platform, after it moved to block plans by Steam, the biggest distributor of PC-based video games, to extend its reach into iPhones and iPads.

Focus on speed, parental controls in software upgrades

Apple on Monday unveiled software upgrades that would let older iPhones run faster, help parents limit their children’s screen time and make its Siri voice assistant work more like a rival feature from Amazon.com. Taken together, the moves announced at Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose amounted to focusing on keeping its base of 1.3 billion users satisfied with their devices and catching up with some competitors. Apple shares closed up 0.8 per cent at $191.83 after the news, and rose to $192.40 in extended trading.

Apple faced a backlash late last year when it emerged that the company slowed down some older iPhones with flagging batteries. The latest version of Apple’s operating system for the iPhone and iPad, iOS 12, will make older devices, such as the iPhone 6, work better.

Software chief Craig Federighi said iOS 12 could carry out simple tasks, such as opening apps, up to twice as fast as its predecessor, iOS 11. The new system will work on a range of products that date back to 2013.The company also will allow broader use of in-app voice controls, which it had limited to a handful of apps, such as PayPal and Uber. Amazon, by contrast, was much more open to controlling apps with its Alexa assistant.

Apple also rolled out group video chat sessions with up to 32 users, putting it in direct competition with companies such as Cisco Systems  and Microsoft's Skype.

In response to criticism that Apple contributed to computer overuse by children, iPhone and iPad users will now be able to limit the time children spend in apps, as well as which apps they can use.

"Some apps demand more of our attention than we might realize," Federighi said.

The parent control system sits atop a broader system that adults, too, can use to monitor and limit their screen time.

Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said the flexibility of Apple's system set it apart from others designed only for parental monitoring, offering the ability for teens and adults to impose their own limits.

"It's a clear admission from Apple: 'Our installed base is so big, and no two users are the same, so we're not going to tell you what works for you,'" she said.
New features help protect users' anonymity online. The company said its Safari web browser for both Macs and iPhones will keep users from being tracked without their permission by websites that use "like" or "share" buttons from social media companies.

Apple unveiled new steps to make it hard for advertisers to distinguish among users, building on its effort, begun last year, to prevent such tracking. Apple also rolled out new tools for augmented reality, saying users would be able to share worlds in games, for instance. LEGO, the maker of interlocking toy blocks, showed off an app in which two players using iPads could put out a virtual fire blazing on a physical house made of LEGOs.

Federighi said Apple had been working on a "multi-year" effort to make it easier to move iPhone and iPad apps onto Mac computers, a significant change because Apple's iOS is often a top destination for developers, who frequently choose Android phones as the second platform.