Apple’s Default Apps Track Users Extensively: ‘Getting Rid of Them is Virtually Impossible’

The default applications on Apple devices collect a lot of information about users. And, even if you disable some of these native apps, they still suck up a lot of personal data without your knowledge, according to a new study.

Apple runs a tight ship in its closed ecosystem. Developers are subject to a high level of vetting when submitting apps to the App Store, and users can’t install any third-party app. Many users choose Apple over Android due to its perceived high level of security.

However, Apple devices may not be as secure as you think. In a recently published paper, researchers at Aalto University in Finland assessed a few default apps on Apple devices and found that they’re guilty of invasive data tracking.

The First Study of Its Kind

There’s no shortage of research studies into excessive data tracking by third-party apps. However, this was the first study to specifically look at the privacy of Apple’s native apps, which come preinstalled on your device.

While you can take steps to protect yourself from malicious third-party apps by removing them from your device, it isn’t the same for native apps. These apps cannot be removed from your phone.

We focused on apps that are an integral part of the platform and ecosystem. These apps are glued to the platform, and getting rid of them is virtually impossible,” Associate Professor at Aalto University, Janne Lindqvist, said.

Why the Study’s Findings Should Concern You

Researchers looked at eight different native applications that come bundled with Apple’s operating system, namely:

  • Safari
  • Siri
  • Family Sharing
  • iMessage
  • FaceTime
  • Location Services
  • Find My
  • Touch ID

They found that, due to a complicated interface, it’s very difficult for users to opt out of data sharing on Apple devices.

For example, the user is given the option to enable or not enable Siri, Apple’s virtual assistant. But enabling only refers to whether you use Siri’s voice control. Siri collects data in the background from other apps you use, regardless of your choice, unless you understand how to go into the settings and specifically change that,” Lindqvist said.

To demonstrate this, the researchers invited users to change their privacy settings and stop data sharing, and no user was able to stop these native apps from sharing their personal information with other apps or service providers.

Unfortunately, without any official statement from Apple, we can only speculate about where this data might be going behind the scenes. The researchers believe that it’s possible the data is being used to train next-gen AI that could be implemented within Siri.

Protecting Yourself From Invasive Tracking

It’s never good news when you discover that yet another entity is snooping on and gathering your data, particularly when it’s not straightforward to opt out of the process.

In May 2024, the findings from this study will be presented at the CHI Conference (Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems). With it, the team at Aalto University will recommend ways Apple can make its privacy settings more visible and accessible to users.

Until then, the research team recommends using alternative apps where possible. Starting with Safari, you may want to consider using a privacy-friendly alternative like Mozilla Firefox.

We recommend reading our guide to optimizing your iPhone and iPad privacy settings to learn how to limit the data that Apple collects about you. Also, use a VPN to encrypt your traffic and limit the information that apps and online services can collect about you.

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