Apple’s privacy-focused ‘nutrition labels’ for apps are just the start

Do you trust companies like Facebook to tell you exactly and completely how, and to what extent, their apps monitor and track you on your phone and across the Internet? The question isn’t a rhetorical one, because Apple’s latest privacy push hinges on the answer being “yes” to that question.

Most privacy policies are a vague mess. This issue, fully documented(opens in a new tab) From new York Times The privacy project, in 2019, is only complicated when people are forced to read documents spread across their smartphones – scrolling the whole time they do. Apple on Monday unveiled a new feature for the upcoming iOS 14 aimed at addressing this problem. The proposed solution is labels similar to nutrition labels seen on the side of food packaging, which quickly and clearly tell users how an app uses their data.

At face value, the idea sounds great. According to slides shared at WWDC, the app label will list in plain language what data is associated with you and what data is used to track you. There’s just one obvious problem: All of the information on the labels is self-reported by the companies and developers behind the apps.

Katie Skinner, Apple’s manager of user privacy software, explains the company’s approach to privacy labels during a WWDC presentation(opens in a new tab),

“We’ll show you what they tell us,” she said. “You can see if the developer is collecting a little data on you, or a lot of data, or if they’re sharing data with other companies to track you, and more.”

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Eric Neuenschwander, Apple’s director of user privacy, detailed how this differs from Apple’s current practices and how the company’s plan was inspired by the Humble Nutrition label (almost all of it in the embedded video above, if you want to watch along). starts at 58:22).

Today, we require that apps have a privacy policy. Wouldn’t it be even better to be able to quickly and easily see a summary of an app’s privacy practices before you download it? Now, where have we seen something like this before? For food, you have nutrition labels; You can see before you buy whether it’s loaded with protein or loaded with sugar, or maybe both. So we thought it would be great to have something similar for apps too. We’re going to make it a requirement for every developer to self-report their practices.

This raises many questions. For starters, how will Apple ensure that the self-reported data is accurate? If a company misrepresents data collected on app users, or omits key tracking practices on the privacy label, will Apple hold that company accountable? if so, how? And how long until Apple requires privacy labels like this for all apps in the App Store?

We reached out to several specific people at Apple, in addition to the usual media contact, with a host of questions, but did not receive a response from the company.

As things currently stand, Apple reserves the right to boot developers and their apps from the App Store.(opens in a new tab) ,[sharing] user data without user consent.” It’s unclear whether Apple will take a similar step against Facebook for failing to list specific data-collection practices on the privacy labels of its iOS apps.

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To be clear, the goal of making privacy policies more digestible is laudable, and Apple should be cheered for this first step — but it’s only a first step.

Because, as things stand, the entire privacy-label proposition depends on companies being honest and forthright about what they do with users’ data — something history has shown as a crazy proposition. .

Earlier this year, for example, Motherboard reported(opens in a new tab) Zoom’s iOS app was sending users’ data to Facebook. The app did this even when users did not have a Facebook account, and did so without explicitly stating so in the iOS app’s privacy policy.

See also: Mark Zuckerberg doesn’t want to talk about tracking users who log out of Facebook

Perhaps in the future, Apple will move beyond relying on app developers to accurately and clearly fill out new app privacy labels. But hey, until then, it’s a start.

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