This year’s Worldwide Developer Conference showed a new way forward in data protection. Picture: Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP
This year’s Worldwide Developer Conference showed a new way forward in data protection. Picture: Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP

Just how good are Apple’s new privacy features?

"You have zero privacy anyway. Get over it."

This now famous quote was uttered by Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy 20 years ago, and yet it stings as though it fell from the lips of a maleficent tech executive only yesterday.

In recent years, even the savviest technologists out there have discovered that personal details have been sucked out of their smartphone, processed by a third party, and sold to the highest bidder.

Did you know the map app in your smartphone has been recording your movements for years? Or that Facebook tracks your clicks across the web using a code that you'll never see? What about the metadata on your photos; the health data collected by your smartwatch; your food ordering habits; the businesses you frequent? They are all regularly accessed, processed, and traded by data vampires inside your devices.

But amid this gloom, one tech giant has decided to take a different approach.

Since its earliest days, Apple has talked a big privacy game. Earlier this year, the company even hired billboards above the infamous Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, to proclaim: "what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone". And to the company's credit, they're now backing that statement up with action.

At its Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose on Monday, the company unveiled its new privacy feature, "Sign in with Apple".

It sounds about as exciting as day-old porridge, but make no mistake - this is one of the most innovative consumer protection creations to have come out of Silicon Valley in years.

Make no mistake — this is one of the most innovative consumer protection creations to have come out of Silicon Valley in years. Picture: iStock
Make no mistake — this is one of the most innovative consumer protection creations to have come out of Silicon Valley in years. Picture: iStock

As just about any user will know, many apps only let you sign in using a Facebook or Google account, which is questionable at best for those hoping to protect their privacy. Because as Apple software engineering senior vice-president Craig Federighi explained it this week, "these logins can be used to track you".

Via its new sign in option, Apple promises not to hand over any extra information to the service you're trying to access. Essentially, that means what happens on the app stays on the app.

The sign-in feature will even let users mask their contact details should they wish.

"You can choose to share your actual email address, or you can choose to hide it," Federighi said during the function's unveiling. "And, when you do (share it), we'll create a unique, random address that forwards to your real address."

It was at this moment that the WWDC horde started whooping and whistling.

The ‘sign in with Apple’ feature is set to change the way people see data protection. Picture: AP/Jeff Chiu
The ‘sign in with Apple’ feature is set to change the way people see data protection. Picture: AP/Jeff Chiu

Because the more you think about it, the smarter the move reveals itself to be.

Not only will this feature let consumers break contact with spammy, annoying services that hold onto customers like a stage-five clinger, it will also help identify which firms are actively selling your information.

For example, if your new random address starts attracting messages from companies you've never heard of or engaged with, for example, you'll know who sent them to you.

Apple also plans to allow users to grant apps one-time access to their location in case, for example, they're genuinely lost, and issue reports on when other apps logged their locations. Compared to the often opaque location and privacy settings in current Google Android phones, this is a refreshing take on a commonly occurring problem.

But while these new features are impressive and a significant leap ahead, they still don't completely solve technology's problem with privacy.

Apps, including those on the iPhones, still gather your information and send it to their "trusted partners" without your knowledge.

To prove the pervasiveness of this problem, a Wall Street Journal reporter recently logged 5400 times data was sucked from his iPhone and sent to third parties without his knowledge. That occurred all within the space of just one week.

Ultimately, the fact remains that if you're signed into Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Google Maps, Tumblr, Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, you're probably spreading your details far and wide without even meaning or trying to.

So do you really have zero privacy, as the Sun Microsystems CEO claimed? The answer is yes and no. Privacy is definitely ailing, but it's not dead yet. And Apple's efforts could be the temporary patch-up we need while the world works on a greater cure.

Jennifer Dudley-Nicholson is News Corp Australia's national technology editor.

@JenDudley



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