Apple Defends Privacy Practices To US Lawmakers

Image credit: US Senate

Apple insists it is ‘radically different’ on privacy from the likes of Google and Facebook, but not all are convinced

Apple has told US lawmakers it “minimises” the collection of personal data by its devices and services using means such as on-device processing, in response to privacy queries earlier this year.

The company further specified that its devices do not make recordings of ambient sounds and conversations saying third-party apps are not permitted to do so either.

Representatives Greg Walden, Marsha Blackburn, Gregg Harper and Robert Latta wrote to Apple chief executive Tim Cook and Alphabet chief Larry Page in July over privacy concerns triggered in part by Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica data scandal.

They cited reports saying smartphones could “collect ‘non-triggered’ audio data from users’ conversations near a smartphone in order to hear a ‘trigger’ phrase, such as ‘Okay Google’ or ‘Hey Siri’.”

‘Apple Park’, Apple’s new headquarters in Cupertino

Audio recordings

In its response to Walden, chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, Apple said iPhones do not record audio while listening for Siri wakeup commands and that Siri does not share spoken words.

Users must explicitly approve microphone access by iOS apps, which must clearly indicate when they are listening.

The July letters followed congressional hearings in April into Facebook’s privacy practices. The hearings were triggered by the allegedly improper use by Cambridge Analytica of personal data on tens of millions of Facebook users in the 2016 US presidential election campaign.

Apple has made efforts to distinguish its privacy practices from those of companies such as Alphabet and Facebook.

In its letter Apple director of federal government affairs Timothy Powderly said Apple’s practices were “radically different” from those of other firms and said it was “transparent” about the collection of user data.

“We utilize on-device processing to minimise data collection by Apple,” Powderly wrote, reiterating that Apple’s business model doesn’t depend on the use of personal data for advertising purposes.

Privacy rules

Apple said it had removed apps from its App Store over privacy violations but did not say whether it had banned developers over such issues.

The company said it cannot monitor what developers do with the customer data they collect or prevent the data from being transferred to third parties. It also isn’t able to ensure developers comply with their own policies or applicable laws.

Apple said it rejects about 36,000 apps from the 100,000 submitted to the App Store each week for violations of its rules.

Industry observers have downplayed Apple’s claim that it has a different orientation to privacy than Facebook and Google, remarking that even if Apple itself doesn’t rely on processing personal data for its revenues, the same isn’t true of its many app developers.

Two of the most prominent amongst those developers are none other than Alphabet’s Google and Facebook, whose apps Apple has always made freely available on its devices.