Apple's user privacy stance has caused problems for internal engineering teams

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Apple's strong commitment to user privacy has reportedly made work more difficult for some of its engineers, leading to vetoed features and limitations on what its platforms can do.

iPhone Privacy
iPhone Privacy


The iPhone maker doesn't collect much information from its users, and in some cases, even junior privacy engineers can reject proposed features that are deemed a user to privacy and security, according to a new deep dive from The Information.

Compared to other technology companies, Apple's lack of access to user data means that it can't properly mimic features provided by its competitors, some insiders with knowledge of the matter told the publication.

This is in contrast to rival tech giants like Google and Meta, which both pretty freely collect and analyze data about their users' online behavior. For Apple, privacy is a linchpin of its business model -- and it's reportedly a point of pride for many of its employees.

However, some engineers in non-privacy departments worry that Apple's strong stance is causing it to lag behind others.

For example, Apple TV+ engineers can't analyze how customers move from one piece of content to another. That means that the streaming service isn't able to recommend more videos based on preferences like Netflix or Disney do.

Other features have never seen a consumer release because of privacy vetoes.

In 2019, Apple was working on a feature that could let users ask Siri to purchase apps or other online services with their voice. That effort stalled because Apple media product engineers couldn't find a solution to work around restrictions that prevent Siri from tying a user's Apple ID to their voice request.

And, in 2015, Apple staffers working on the Photos app proposed a feature that would allow users to chronologically list the locations they had visited and view images taken at those areas. This feature was vetoed by a privacy engineer who explained how the feature could make it easier for authoritarian governments to see where a user has been.

Apple's privacy rules have been a nuisance for other departments, like Apple Maps. The navigation app is preinstalled on Apple products but isn't as popular as alternatives like Google Maps. That's partly because Apple obtains far less data, such as where a user starts and ends their trips.

According to Friday's report, some junior privacy engineers are even able to veto proposed new features from more senior staff members in Apple's other divisions.

The worst-case thinking of Apple's privacy staff has been proven right in recent years, including by sophisticated surveillance and spyware made by companies like NSO Group -- which sells tools to governments that can remotely take over and steal data from a user's Apple device.

In some cases, Apple's pro-privacy position has created unique challenges. Between 2017 and 2018, Apple was working on the Raise to Speak feature on the Apple Watch. A former employee said some of his colleagues rejected the feature because it collected accelerometer and microphone data. They also rejected a proposal to hire volunteers to test out the feature, because that still appeared to cross a privacy line.

Apple's commitment to privacy, however, is still a unique selling point. And Apple appears to have been able to overcome some of the relatively negative effects on product development appear. Apple TV+, for example, has seen a quick rise after a slow start. Despite significant competition, it appears to be growing, and in 2022, one of its originals -- "CODA" -- won the Oscar for Best Picture.

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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 22
    22july201322july2013 Posts: 3,060member
    A good news article has a title with a bad news feel to it.
    rob53BigBWSRmike1Alex_VdarkvaderFileMakerFellerjony0watto_cobramaltz
  • Reply 2 of 22
    rob53rob53 Posts: 3,010member
    A good news article has a title with a bad news feel to it.
    I agree. Good news about privacy being first and foremost instead of frivolous type features. Give me a secure system over a bunch of convenience features any day. I don’t consider my voice to be secure or unique or consistent enough to allow Siri to make purchases. “My voice is my passport” (from Sneakers) is a perfect example of what Apple shouldn’t do. Yes, we’ve come along ways but with today’s software I’m sure anyone could take my voice and replicate it well enough for Siri to use it. 
    darkvaderFileMakerFellerjony0watto_cobramaltz
  • Reply 3 of 22
    BigBWSRBigBWSR Posts: 5unconfirmed, member
    Yeah I don’t see the issue here, this is a good thing.
    lkruppdarkvaderFileMakerFellerjony0watto_cobramaltz
  • Reply 4 of 22
    crowleycrowley Posts: 10,363member
    If third party applications can request user permission to do certain privacy-invasive things in order to provide a better service then I don't think Apple should shy away from doing the same thing.  Build the features, but tell the user what you're doing and why, let them decide if it crosses a line and if they choose, opt out.  If Apple are hobbling their ability to deliver because they won't stray from a whiter than white approach to privacy then the alternative services that are less scrupulous will become ever more attractive because of better features, and if they then get a hook in then Apple's privacy strides amount to a whole lot less.
    lkruppitinj24jony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 5 of 22
    chadbagchadbag Posts: 1,734member
    As long as the data that is being correlated doesn’t leave the device then there would really be fewer issues.  Some of these things might be doable anyway.   None of them are things I care about anyway (meaning the feature, not the privacy data). 
    lkruppjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 6 of 22
    lkrupplkrupp Posts: 10,036member
    So now privacy is a bad, limiting, unit-user thing, AppleInsider?
    williamlondondarkvaderjony0watto_cobramaltz
  • Reply 7 of 22
    geekmeegeekmee Posts: 587member
    I bet ‘cha Samsung doesn’t have these problems LOL!
    viclauyycjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 8 of 22
    payecopayeco Posts: 531member
     And, in 2015, Apple staffers working on the Photos app proposed a feature that would allow users to chronologically list the locations they had visited and view images taken at those areas. This feature was vetoed by a privacy engineer who explained how the feature could make it easier for authoritarian governments to see where a user has been. “

    Damn, I would actually really like this feature. 
    jony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 9 of 22
    mike1mike1 Posts: 3,023member
    Of the examples cited, some are technical challenges (Siri app purchases without violating guidelines).

    Some are deliberate decisions not to collect data (Apple TV recommendations). Most recommendations are useless anyway. I can't think of a single time Netflix suggested something that I wanted to watch that I otherwise wouldn't have known about.

    Do not see the supposed issue described with Maps at all. As soon as I open Maps, the app knows where I am and can offer suggestions, knows my frequent destinations (I let it) and provides drive times.

    Sure, there might be a feature that gets killed, but I bet you more often than not, the teams find ways to implement the feature AND satisfy the privacy guidelines. This forces them to "Think Different".

    Good for them.



    darkvaderFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 10 of 22
    Good system security (inc privacy) is not easy or cheap. It takes a lot of time and effort not to cut corners and leave gaping holes. It is also not something that you can add to an existing system in a hurry. It is far better to design it into the solution from the start. Sadly, far too many managers think that this is an option that can be skipped.
    As a now-retired software engineer with over 45 years of experience, I applaud Apple's stance on this.

    viclauyycioniclejust cruisindarkvaderFileMakerFellerjony0watto_cobra
  • Reply 11 of 22
    9secondkox29secondkox2 Posts: 1,394member
    So business as usual. 

    It’s normal to not negate policies. 

    Not causing problems for anyone. 

    It would be those who want to build invasive features who are creating problems. 
    just cruisinrandominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 12 of 22
    This smells like shitty engineers bitching that they can't push the easy button and would actually have to work to create a feature that is desirable AND preserves privacy.  
    randominternetpersonwatto_cobra
  • Reply 13 of 22
    gatorguygatorguy Posts: 23,423member
    mike1 said:
    Some are deliberate decisions not to collect data (Apple TV recommendations). Most recommendations are useless anyway. I can't think of a single time Netflix suggested something that I wanted to watch that I otherwise wouldn't have known about.



    As far as I'm aware Apple does collect some user data when you view AppleTV content.

    Unless it's very recently changed they record and retain information about what you watch, purchase, or download on Apple TV. At least one of the reasons is for improved ad performance in AppStore or Apple News targeted ads. Another purpose is using your viewing data to improve personalized recommendations for other shows you might be interested in.

    They also share some anonymized user data with content creators so that viewership numbers, regions, times etc. and any royalties owed can be determined. And YES they do give you the option to opt out ( I think the default is still opt-in) of these types of data collection, tho the non-personal sharing part may not be optional. I'd have to look into that again.
    edited April 16 jony0
  • Reply 14 of 22
    AppleZuluAppleZulu Posts: 1,396member
    Alternate headline: Apple remains highly competitive as it refuses to sacrifice user privacy and security for easy gimmicks 


    just cruisindarkvaderFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 15 of 22
    payeco said:
    “ And, in 2015, Apple staffers working on the Photos app proposed a feature that would allow users to chronologically list the locations they had visited and view images taken at those areas. This feature was vetoed by a privacy engineer who explained how the feature could make it easier for authoritarian governments to see where a user has been. “

    Damn, I would actually really like this feature. 
    Photos already has this feature.   Your images are displayed in chronological order.  

    You can even go albums->places and see a map showing photos at the location you took them.  When you touch the photos at the location they are displayed chronologically.
    darkvaderFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 16 of 22
    darkvaderdarkvader Posts: 889member
    Video recommendations are a bug, not a feature.

    If anything, Apple should get more hardcore about privacy preservation.  I'd like to see a Little Snitch style firewall for the iPhone, something that would allow me to block apps from talking to specific IP addresses or completely block them from making any internet connections, completely prevent them from contacting any "metrics" sites or ever reporting any kind of usage data.
  • Reply 17 of 22
    This smells like shitty engineers bitching that they can't push the easy button and would actually have to work to create a feature that is desirable AND preserves privacy.  
    Yeah, just blame “shitty engineers” without a shred of evidence. Either post a critical comment based on well-reasoned opinion, evidence, or just get out of the forum!
  • Reply 18 of 22
    jmulchino said:
    This smells like shitty engineers bitching that they can't push the easy button and would actually have to work to create a feature that is desirable AND preserves privacy.  
    Yeah, just blame “shitty engineers” without a shred of evidence. Either post a critical comment based on well-reasoned opinion, evidence, or just get out of the forum!
    Do you really think you can tell others not to participate in a public forum?

    Especially when the subject is privacy rights and the protection there of?


    crowleyFileMakerFellerwatto_cobra
  • Reply 19 of 22
    jmulchino said:
    This smells like shitty engineers bitching that they can't push the easy button and would actually have to work to create a feature that is desirable AND preserves privacy.  
    Yeah, just blame “shitty engineers” without a shred of evidence. Either post a critical comment based on well-reasoned opinion, evidence, or just get out of the forum!
    Do you really think you can tell others not to participate in a public forum?

    Especially when the subject is privacy rights and the protection there of?


    Absolutely not. But say something with evidence or some modicum of thought or get out! What you are saying is one of two things I abhor: attacking those who offer critical comments or just plain lazy slagging. You fit the latter. 
  • Reply 20 of 22
    jmulchino said:
    jmulchino said:
    This smells like shitty engineers bitching that they can't push the easy button and would actually have to work to create a feature that is desirable AND preserves privacy.  
    Yeah, just blame “shitty engineers” without a shred of evidence. Either post a critical comment based on well-reasoned opinion, evidence, or just get out of the forum!
    Do you really think you can tell others not to participate in a public forum?

    Especially when the subject is privacy rights and the protection there of?


    Absolutely not. But say something with evidence or some modicum of thought or get out! What you are saying is one of two things I abhor: attacking those who offer critical comments or just plain lazy slagging. You fit the latter. 
    Again, you don't get to boss people around over the internet.   

    Your weak attempts to kick me off this public forum are both laughable and sad.
    watto_cobra
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