Apple has made strengthening privacy protections a central part of its brand. But critics increasingly warn that the iPhone maker may be using privacy as a guise for anti-competitive behavior.
The latest flare-up comes after Apple made changes to its new mobile operating system that it advertised as improving privacy, but that also give the company an edge over other app makers in using the location-tracking features of the device.
In his first comments on the matter, the top Democrat in charge of a sprawling antitrust investigation into Silicon Valley juggernauts cites the change as one of a number of factors his committee will be exploring as part of an antitrust probe.
“I’m increasingly concerned about the use of privacy as a shield for anti-competitive conduct,” said Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island, chairman of the House Judiciary antitrust subcommittee. “There is a growing risk that without a strong privacy law in the United States, platforms will exploit their role as de facto private regulators by placing a thumb on the scale in their own favor.”
Historically, app makers could ask users for permission to track their location even when they’re not using the app. That was helpful for services that tracked where users parked their car or where they may have lost a device paired to the phone. But in the new update, app makers can no longer ask for that functionality when an app is first set up, a potentially devastating blow to competitors such as Tile, maker of Bluetooth trackers that help people find lost items.
By contrast, Apple tracks iPhone users’ location at all time — and users can’t opt out unless they go deep into Apple’s labyrinthine menu of settings.
App makers complained about the change in an August letter to Apple previously reported by the Information, a technology news site.
Apple spokeswoman Trudy Muller said the company is working with developers who are concerned about the new location-services policy.
“We created the App Store with two goals in mind: that it be a safe and trusted place for customers to discover and download apps, and a great business opportunity for all developers,” Muller said. “We continually work with developers and take their feedback on how to help protect user privacy while also providing the tools developers need to make the best app experiences.”
The changes come as tech giants face growing criticism by U.S. regulators and lawmakers, who have opened probes into potential anti-competitive behavior. The Justice Department and the House Judiciary Committee are investigating whether Apple and other tech giants have abused their power. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has called out Apple for competing against other apps in its store.
Last week, Makan Delrahim, who heads antitrust enforcement for the Justice Department, said in a speech that privacy could become a bigger factor in antitrust regulation in the United States. And some lawmakers including Cicilline are focusing on potential abuses made under the guise of protecting user privacy, but that ended up benefiting the tech giants.
According to newly leaked documents, Facebook internally debated a decision in 2012 to cut some competitors off from collecting valuable user data. It decided to tell the public that it was making the change to protect user privacy, referring to the strategy as a “switcheroo.” Google has cited privacy as a reason for revoking the ability of outside software developers to interact with its Gmail service, drawing criticism from developers.
But Cicilline’s concerns are particularly relevant to Apple, which has made privacy a central part of its products and marketing efforts. This month, Apple launched a new website touting its privacy credentials, highlighting its decision to refrain from data collection in Apple Maps, Apple Music, Safari and other homegrown apps. Apple has been critical of Google and Facebook for their data-collection practices, and says it does a better job.
At the same time, Apple is undergoing a metamorphosis, from a company that sells electronics to one that offers services that run on those devices. Sparked in part by declining iPhone sales, the change also makes data an increasingly important part of Apple’s own business. That is especially true for products such as Siri, Apple’s competitor to Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant. Those services use artificial intelligence, which improves as the amount of data it receives increases.
House lawmakers have been meeting with some of Apple’s partners to discuss their concerns, according to people who have knowledge of the meetings. These people said that one of the topics discussed was Apple’s practice of making changes to the rules that govern its App Store ecosystem in the name of privacy, while also tying the hands of competitors.
Much of Apple’s power comes from the fact that it controls every aspect of the App Store, from the hardware to the underlying computer code. Google’s Android, by contrast, exists on hundreds of different hardware devices made by companies other than Google. Unlike Apple’s iOS, the software can be changed and customized for different purposes.
Apple has previously been criticized for potential anti-competitive behavior on its platform, with some app makers saying the tech giant copied their ideas and replicated them, forcing some out of business. The Judiciary Committee requested information on that practice in a September letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook.
In June, Apple said it would make changes to how apps can request location data. In the past, apps could ask users to “always allow” their location to be tracked by that app during its setup process. But Apple took that option away from developers. Now, users can only give apps permission to track their location while using the app. Apple said it was making the change for privacy reasons. Some developers had abused location tracking, it said, using the data for advertising purposes and not the functionality of the app itself. But other apps require location tracking in the background to work properly.
Customers can still go into the settings and turn location tracking on indefinitely, but it is a multistep process that most people will probably skip. Users may also get a notification from Apple at some point later, asking them if they’d like to switch to permanent location tracking.
When Apple customers do allow always-on location tracking, Apple’s new operating system reminds them periodically with a pop-up window informing them of how often their location had been used by the app maker and gives them the option of turning it off. But Apple doesn’t warn customers about its own location tracking. By default, iPhone customers agree to 18 separate location-tracking system services during the setup process, including Apple’s own location-based advertisements.
That gives Apple a big advantage over competitors on the App Store. Apple can add new features that use location tracking without ever asking its customers for additional permission. In iOS 13, Apple introduced “offline finding,” a service that helps Apple users find lost devices, even if they’re not connected to the internet in a type of networked Bluetooth crowdsourcing.
Apple didn’t independently notify its customers that their devices would be used for offline finding. It added it to the fine print of the existing “Find My” user agreement, which all Apple customers are entered into by default when they set up their phones.
Tile has long offered a service similar to Apple’s new offline finding feature. But unlike Apple, Tile has to ask permission from users to get its feature to work. And now, because of the changes Apple made, Tile can’t ask permission for always-on location tracking during the setup process.
Even if an Apple user declines to give the Find My app permission to track locations, that user will still be defaulted into offline finding and other location tracking features. That’s because Apple considers the app to be separate from the system services that users agree to when setting up their phone.
Apple has said it keeps all location data on its services in an encrypted format that even Apple can’t access.
In August, as Apple was planning to roll out the new limits on location tracking for app developers, a group of companies wrote a letter to Cook, urging him to reconsider its location-tracking policy changes, which also included changes in Apple’s software that would stop companies from tracking users, even if they give permission.
A company called Life360, which offers families a way to keep track of one another in part for safety reasons, said new changes Apple was making would stop its crash-detection and emergency-dispatch service from working, according to the letter, which was reviewed by The Washington Post.
The letter, signed by several companies, points out that Apple’s own applications aren’t limited by the changes, adding that the Find My Friends app, which has since been replaced by “Find My,” works seamlessly out of the box. “While we are extremely grateful to Apple for developing the platform we all rely on to serve our customers, having a double standard for how location data is used and collected undermines Apple’s leadership in privacy, stifles investment in the iOS ecosystem and is anti-competitive,” the letter reads.
The companies pointed to a conflict of interest inherent in the rollout of its new subscription services, which are an increasingly important part of the company’s business as iPhone sales decline. “As Apple expands into additional services, some of which compete with developers like us, the need for a level playing field becomes ever more critical to allow the ecosystem to flourish,” the letter said. Tile was another co-signer to the letter. Tile declined to comment.
Since the changes rolled out apps such as Tile, which helps people find their lost belonging via small devices they can attach to their key chains or place in their wallets, are at a distinct disadvantage. That is because most users stick with the default options in software, rarely going into settings to change options. Before the latest release, those apps were able to ask customers to consent to always-on tracking, which is necessary for apps including Tile to work. That option has now been removed.
In the meantime, several tech websites have published rumors that Apple plans to launch its own version of Tile devices, called Tags. Software in the latest iOS shows yet-be-launched features that Apple says will let people “keep track of their every day items,” with drawings of a key, a suitcase and a bicycle.
Apple has also been buying Google ads for the search term “tile app” and other similar terms related to the devices. When a person searches “Tile App,” the first advertisement takes them to the Tile app on Apple’s App Store.
Experts in online advertising say the search ads could give Apple valuable data about Tile’s potential customers. Apple also buys ads for other apps, including Netflix and the hiking app AllTrails.
This year, Apple stopped selling Tile trackers in its retail stores this year. And when iOS 13 rolled out this fall, it added offline finding. Tile, founded in 2012, worked for years to add enough customers and build out its network. Apple, with total control of its vast user base, was able to eclipse Tile’s entire user base with one software update.