With each yearly major update of iOS, Apple tightens the screws on apps and services that seek to violate your privacy in order to turn a buck. This year is no different, with several very visible new features to help you better understand and control how your data is accessed.
With iOS 13, Apple introduced major changes to location tracking, Safari tracking protections, and the Sign in with Apple feature, among others. You might think your iPhone and iPad already do a great job of protecting your personal data, but there’s apparently plenty more Apple can do, because the privacy features of iOS 14 are numerous and substantial (they’re duplicated in iPadOS 14, too). Here are the highlights.
Updated 09/03/20: Apple has given app developers until early 2021 to update their apps with opt-in tracking permission requests. Read more about it below.
Mic and camera access lights
Any time an app access your microphone, a little amber dot will appear in the status bar, over by where the Wi-Fi and cellular connection symbols are. When an app access the camera, a green dot will appear.
These are fairly universally understood as “recording” lights and they will clearly point out when an app you’re using is accessing the camera or microphone at times it shouldn’t.
Just since the release of the iOS 14 beta, the lights have already revealed sketchy behavior in several apps that have gone on to promise updates to fix the “bugs.”
When an app wants to use your location, it has to ask for your permission. In iOS 13, you can only grant permission for an app to use your location while you’re using it, or just once; the app can then further ask to use your location in the background, and you’ll get periodic reminders that it is.
In iOS 14, Apple is going further. When an app asks for location permission, it will be marked as Precise: On or Precise: Off. You can open Settings > Privacy > Location Services and toggle Precise Location on or off for each app individually.
Precise location is what we’re use to now, and is great for apps that need to know your location down to the approximate address—a delivery or ride-hailing app, for example. But many apps use location to do things like show local news stories or weather. If an app only needs approximate location info (the city you’re in rather than your address), you can disable precise location and somewhat preserve your privacy. Approximate location is updated much less frequently, too.
Limited Photos access
When an app wants to access the photos stored on your iPhone, it has to ask for permission. That makes sense, but the all-or-nothing approach doesn’t leave a privacy-minded user much middle ground.
When an app asks for permission to access Photos in iOS 14, the operating system gives you the choice to allow access to all photos, no photos, or a new “select photos” option. You can choose specific photos or folders to give the app access too.
In Settings > Privacy > Photos you can change this setting on a per-app basis or change which photos you have selected to give the app access to.
In the past, some popular photo-manipulation apps have been caught uploading more pictures to their servers than just the ones you select. This puts a stop to that at the operating system level.
Tracking permissions for advertising
Apps use all sorts of tracking features to display tailored ads to you. They look at things like your location, or other apps installed on your iPhone, or other usage metrics.
If an app wants to track you across websites or apps owned by other companies in iOS 14, it has to pop up a permissions request.
You can open Settings > Privacy > Tracking and turn off “Allow Apps to Request to Track” if you don’t even want to be asked anymore.
A separate option in Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising allows you to disable personalized apps in Apple services like the App Store, Apple News, or Stocks. Note that this won’t reduce ads, it will just prevent Apple from using any of your data to show you ads that are tailored to you.
Update 09/03/20: The advertising industry, which relies on tracking everywhere you go across the web and from app to app in order to build detailed profiles of you for ad targeting, is really upset about Apple making this cross-site and cross-app tracking opt-in instead of opt-out. Apple is still including the feature in iOS 14, but is now only going to require apps to show the pop-up to obtain tracking permission starting early in 2021. You'll still see the option in the Settings app, though.
When you paste something from your clipboard, iOS 14 will show a little notification stating what app accessed your clipboard, where the clipboard data comes from.
This may sound like a small thing, even a bit of an annoyance. But it’s huge. Within days of the iOS 14 beta’s release, dozens of apps were found to be accessing your iPhone or iPad’s clipboard, sometimes as often as with every keystroke you type!
This has even more importance on Apple’s ecosystem than others. A feature of Handoff called Universal Clipboard makes things you copy to your clipboard on your Mac instantly accessible on your iPhone or iPad, and vice-versa. It’s really convenient for those with multiple Apple products, and it can be disabled if you want to, but you shouldn’t have to give up convenience for the sake of privacy.
The clipboard notification popup is likely Apple’s first shot across the bow. It would be aggravating to have to grant apps permission to access the contents of your clipboard all the time, but if the preponderance of bad actors may force Apple’s hand. Simply making the behavior obvious seems to have already done users a great service in getting apps to clean up their act.
App store privacy info
While not yet available in the iOS 14 beta, the App Store in iOS 14 will require every developer to report its privacy practices. These will be displayed in a prominent section of the page.
Think of it like a nutrition label for privacy, with each app displaying which data it collects that can be linked with other data to personally identify you, and which data the app collects and can use to track you (including across apps and sites).
This is more important than it sounds. When an app is collecting more information than it needs to operate, it’s either using that data for something not related to the product (like targeting ads), or selling it off. Apple’s not stopping this behavior, yet, but it’s making it more obvious to you before you even download an app.
Safari privacy report
Securing your privacy on your iPhone or iPad is one thing, but your data is being scooped up all over the web, too. In addition to new security features like password monitoring, Apple is building on the features built into Safari to prevent cross-site tracking and cookies.
Building on the theme of showing users just how widespread user tracking has become, Safari in iOS, iPadOS, and macOS Big Sur features a new privacy report. In macOS it is displayed on new tabs, on iOS you tap the text icon on the left side of the address bar and select Privacy Report.
This screen shows you how many trackers Safari has blocked, which websites have the most trackers, and which trackers are most prominent.