Changes in iOS 13 may force major redesign of VoIP apps

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in iOS
Major messaging app services that offer calls, such as Facebook's Messenger and WhatsApp, will have to make major changes to their code base to work properly in iOS 13, a report claims, due to fears from Apple that existing methods used by the apps could be used for data collection purposes.

WhatsApp iOS


Announced as part of a session on the background execution of apps during WWDC 2019, Apple is forcing apps that perform background processing when not in use to cut down on what they do, for the purposes of saving battery power and improving performance. Rather than keeping apps running, Apple instead wants to restrict the background processing as much as possible.

For apps with a VoIP component, like WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, they attempt to keep running in the background as much as possible to allow calls to connect quickly. Under Apple's updated system, such apps will have to rely on a new "VoIP push notifications," a type of low-data push to a device that can open the relevant app and perform functions to open the call up.

Developers have until April 2020 to make their apps comply with the requirements.

Citing sources familiar with the matter, The Information claims that both the named apps will force a major redesign, as the background app technique performs a number of functions. Specifically named as a feature needing mass alteration is how WhatsApp handles end-to-end encryption.

The change may also prompt other refinements, as apps were able to take advantage of the background task for internet calls to keep the app in memory, allowing it to launch quicker than entirely from scratch. By switching to VoIP push notifications, this eliminates the benefit of having the app poised and ready to run.

Aside from power and performance, another reason Apple may be closing the function is due to the possibility of the background app collecting data about the user, something which may be seen as a privacy issue.

A Facebook spokesperson insisted to the report it was not using the calling feature to collect data. "To be clear - we are using the PushKit VoIP API to deliver a world-class, private messaging experience, not for the purpose of collecting data."

Facebook also advised the changes are "not insignificant, but we are in conversations with Apple on how best to address" the alterations.

The background processing for VoIP calls in relation to Facebook's apps has been an issue for some time, with former Apple app review team chief Phillip Shoemaker noting Facebook's splintering of Messenger into a standalone app in 2014 didn't end Facebook's use of the feature in the main social network app. While Shoemaker advises Facebook was stopped from using the system in its main app, the VoIP background mode is still actively used in both Messenger and WhatsApp.

"Messenger can still use [VoIP background] mode, and does," Shoemaker said. "What they do in the background, whether it be accept calls, listen in all the time or update the content of the main app, it's all unclear to Apple, but could be happening."

Facebook is not the only app producer to be using the technique, with Snapchat and WeChat cited as using it to run in the background for reasons other than voice calling. The lack of knowledge of what the apps are explicitly doing during those periods has been a potential cause for alarm.

The social network has been caught in a number of compromising situations relating to user privacy over the last few years. Aside from the Cambridge Analytica scandal that cost it $5 billion, the company has also used its now-banned Research VPN app to acquire data on 187,000 users since 2016, which led to Apple temporarily pulling Facebook's enterprise certificate.

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 16
    Personally, I don't ever use these apps for VoIP - but I do use the Ooma app on my iPhone to receive calls made to our home phone. I hope there are workarounds to keep apps like this (and Skype, for those who don't mind the suck that is Microsoft) from being totally neutered.
  • Reply 2 of 16
    I really appreciate Apple is setting the standard for privacy here which others would never do (because they don’t want or are not capable of). 
  • Reply 3 of 16
    sflocalsflocal Posts: 4,685member
    I have zero problems with this.  I hate how power-hungry apps like Facebook are.  
    StrangeDaysmacseeker
  • Reply 4 of 16
    mobirdmobird Posts: 222member
    Anything that negatively impacts (in Facebook's perception) any and all Facebook and it's associated platforms is OK with me.
    There are going to be collectively millions  of people that someday look back and wonder and ask how they ever allowed themselves to forfeit so much of their respective personal information just to be able to post "what's for dinner", high school yearbook pictures, along with cute and funny looking animals while at the same time unbeknownst to themselves reading volumes of deceiving and fake news.
    edited August 6 StrangeDaysmacseeker
  • Reply 5 of 16
    StrangeDaysStrangeDays Posts: 8,298member
    Personally, I don't ever use these apps for VoIP - but I do use the Ooma app on my iPhone to receive calls made to our home phone. I hope there are workarounds to keep apps like this (and Skype, for those who don't mind the suck that is Microsoft) from being totally neutered.
    The new technique is outlined in the article. 
    FileMakerFeller
  • Reply 6 of 16
    mjtomlinmjtomlin Posts: 1,922member
    Personally, I don't ever use these apps for VoIP 

    That's the issue though... whether you're using it for VoIP or not, these apps are making use of background VoIP processing for which Apple has no idea.


    ... I hope there are workarounds to keep apps like this (and Skype, for those who don't mind the suck that is Microsoft) from being totally neutered.

    Yes, that was the point of this article...Apple is changing the API for apps that need this type of feature, from an always listening to a notification implementation.
    FileMakerFeller
  • Reply 7 of 16
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,572member
    Facebook: “To be clear - we are not using PushKit for collecting data” 

    Yeah, right.

    These changes seem good to me - Streamline the VOIP API to minimize the overhead and power usage. We’re looking at using iPhones with a Cisco VoIP client at work, so my main concern would be delays in connecting the calls caused by the need to load the app into memory.
    macseeker
  • Reply 8 of 16
    chasmchasm Posts: 1,649member
    The only reason Messenger and WhatsApp (now owned by Facebook) exist is to collect data. As with Google apps, there is no other purpose to them, since that would take away from, rather than add to, the advertising-based business models of these companies. By contrast, Apple (and Microsoft, to be fair) add features primarily to add value to the hardware and software they sell.

    BIG difference in models and approaches.
  • Reply 9 of 16
    chasm said:
    The only reason Messenger and WhatsApp (now owned by Facebook) exist is to collect data. As with Google apps, there is no other purpose to them, since that would take away from, rather than add to, the advertising-based business models of these companies. By contrast, Apple (and Microsoft, to be fair) add features primarily to add value to the hardware and software they sell.

    BIG difference in models and approaches.
    Which is the apps are FREE. The alternative would be charging for use or advertising within the app. 
  • Reply 10 of 16
    Rayz2016Rayz2016 Posts: 4,730member
    MplsP said:
    Facebook: “To be clear - we are not using PushKit for collecting data” 

    Yeah, right.

    Yup, collecting data is the byproduct. 
  • Reply 11 of 16
    uraharaurahara Posts: 264member
    Facebook: “To be clear - we are not using PushKit for collecting data” ... We use other means...
  • Reply 12 of 16
    neilmneilm Posts: 634member

    Aside from power and performance, another reason Apple may be closing the function is due to the possibility of the background app collecting data about the user, something which may be seen as a privacy issue.
    "May"?
  • Reply 13 of 16
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 1,572member
    My wife just got home from Scandinavia and according to her, everyone there uses WhatsApp and virtually no one uses iMessage. I think one of the main reasons is WhatsApp is cross platform so you can use it with Android phones. The big thing she noticed was that WhatsApp completely sucks battery. (Probably from all of the background data collection.) She would have to charge her phone several times a day when using it. Now that she’s home, she only charges it once a day.
    badmonk
  • Reply 14 of 16
    MplsP said:
    Facebook: “To be clear - we are not using PushKit for collecting data” 

    Yeah, right.

    These changes seem good to me - Streamline the VOIP API to minimize the overhead and power usage. We’re looking at using iPhones with a Cisco VoIP client at work, so my main concern would be delays in connecting the calls caused by the need to load the app into memory.
    Even on my 6+ it rarely takes more than two seconds to load an app, although I do tend to avoid apps with large resource requirements so YMMV. I doubt it would take long to test the load time for the Cisco VoIP app and I also doubt the load time would be large enough to cause a noticeable delay. How long does it take the user to take the phone out of their pocket, or tap their watch, or reach up and press the button on their headphones?
  • Reply 15 of 16
    MplsP said:
    My wife just got home from Scandinavia and according to her, everyone there uses WhatsApp and virtually no one uses iMessage. I think one of the main reasons is WhatsApp is cross platform so you can use it with Android phones. The big thing she noticed was that WhatsApp completely sucks battery. (Probably from all of the background data collection.) She would have to charge her phone several times a day when using it. Now that she’s home, she only charges it once a day.
    I'm not certain it's the background data collection, but I don't know what actions are being performed by the code. It might just be that the app being in background mode is enough to interfere with the techniques the OS uses to save the battery. It might also be that the app is collecting a bunch of information that we'd rather not allow and the power drain from that is significant, but I discount that possibility only because I believe the motion coprocessor handles a lot of that nowadays so the resource use should be minimal.

    I think Apple's approach here is the right way forward (according to what I was taught in the 1990s about interrupts vs polling), but I also think they're being a bit heavy-handed in how they're forcing the change on developers. Of course, that latter part is nothing new for Apple, it's just something that still rankles - same as every other situation where I get forced to change before I'm ready to.
  • Reply 16 of 16
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,097member
    I was not at WWDC, but It is not clear how this “new” push to initiate VoIP is different than the current PushKit push to initiate VoIP from the article.  Apple has been on the warpath for a couple years already against apps staying alive in the background for VoIP and has been strongly encouraging developers to use the push method instead of an open socket.   In fact, in order to keep the socket open, currently, you have to apply for and receive a special entitlement from Apple.  

    Maybe this is just “old news” being recycled and the actual news is that Apple is going to strictly enforce it starring in 2020.  

    There are legitimate reasons for specialty apps to continue to still be allowed to keep a VoIP socket open at all times — for example special purpose vertical market medical services apps where the phone is basically being used as a specialty device and not a general purpose individual owned phone.  

    Note that except for memory use, an app with the VoIP socket entitlement that keeps the socket open does not necessarily cause great battery use, because the app can still be put into an in between background state where the app is "active" and in memory but in the background and not given processing time unless the socket is addressed by the network or an incoming push wakes the app up.  

    I do not think that apps like WhatsApp use VoIP socket entitlement to stay resident in memory as I doubt Apple would grant such an app the entitlement and it wouldn't have the huge battery drain spoken of in an above comment.  I have expect they are using work arounds or hacks to accomplish the purpose. 
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