Apple breaks from its typical secrecy to disclose privacy protections in Safari and iPhone location

Key Points
  • Apple publishes documents about four of its apps and technologies and the data they collect and how it's used.
  • Privacy is becoming a key selling point for Apple, and it's the focus of advertisements.
  • The disclosures highlight that while Apple is a secretive company, it needs to become increasingly transparent about the nuts and bolts of its software to convince privacy advocates.
A monorail train displaying Google signage moves past a billboard advertising Apple iPhone security during the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., on Monday, Jan. 7, 2019.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Apple has published four new white papers detailing privacy provisions in its location services technology, the Photos app, the Safari browser and the sign-in feature that was released this fall.

The move comes as Apple increasingly promotes privacy and security features as a selling point — for instance, a recent ad campaign uses the tagline, "Privacy. That's iPhone." While Apple is a secretive company in its operations, it's becoming increasingly transparent about the nuts and bolts of its software to convince privacy advocates that its products do a better job of protecting personal data than those of competitors.

Privacy also helps Apple distinguish itself from its Silicon Valley neighbors Facebook and Google, which face increasing public pressure stemming from how they handle user data. Apple CEO Tim Cook has repeatedly spoken publicly about privacy and even called for federal regulation around personal data. Cook has also said Apple's business model, which is based on sales of devices, as one reason to trust Apple products over the competition, including phones running Google's Android, because Google makes money by targeting advertisements.

The Safari paper also describes how Apple makes it more difficult for ad companies and data firms to track your computer based on technical information like the size of the browser window or your operating system, called "fingerprinting." Safari's anti-fingerprinting technology was criticized by several advertising trade groups last year.

The latest disclosures were part of an annual update for a section on Apple's website for information dedicated to privacy. Apple also runs a portal that enables people to download their data or delete their account.

At the same time, Apple has faced some privacy controversies of its own: Apps that run on the iPhone can leak data. Last summer, Apple apologized after The Guardian reported that its Siri voice assistant stores user recordings in ways that customers weren't aware of.

Apple privacy features have also annoyed people and companies at other companies, including rivals.

For example, the document on location services describes how Apple's new software displays a pop-up when apps collect location data in the background. Even before the new iPhone software launched, Facebook published a blog post warning its users about it.

One image in the Safari document is a pop-up showing Facebook asking for access to cookies to "track your activity" on a Mac computer.

CNBC Tech Check Evening Edition: October 05, 2019
CNBC Tech Check Evening Edition: October 05, 2019