Apple developer conference 2018

Apple takes on Facebook with anti-tracking tools for iOS and macOS

Image credit: REUTERS/Elijah Nouvelage

At its annual Worldwide Developers Conference in San Jose, California, Apple outlined its plans for the upcoming months, which will include tools to prevent Facebook tracking users’ browsing habits and to restrict the amount of time users spend on their iPhones.

The anti-tracking tools will arrive with the upcoming version of the iOS (iOS 12) and Mac (macOS Mojave) operating systems, on which Apple web browser Safari will explicitly ask users whether they want to give permission for Facebook to monitor their browsing activity.

According to pictures shared at the conference, an alert on Safari could state: “Do you want to allow to use cookies and available data while browsing? This will allow to track your activity”.

According to Craig Federighi, Apple’s vice-president for software, Facebook and other companies tracks users in ways that they are unlikely to be aware of, including when they are browsing unrelated websites and logged out of Facebook.

“We’ve all seen these like buttons and share buttons and these comment fields,” he said. “It turns out these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. So this year, we’re shutting that down.”

The WWDC conference – Apple’s developer conference – was told that macOS Mojave would also prevent advertisers tracking users who delete their cookies using a technique called “fingerprinting”, which collects other details to identify unique users online. According to Federigdi, users could avoid fingerprinting if Safari were to present web sites with fewer identifying details about their Macs.

The announcements are likely to stoke tensions between Apple, which has long presented the image of a company that puts user privacy first, and Facebook, which continues to face criticism for its mass collection of users data and its failure to prevent abuse of this data by third parties (most notably in the Cambridge Analytica scandal). Apple CEO Tim Cook has described Facebook’s business practices as an “invasion of privacy”.

Alex Stamos, Facebook’s chief security officer, responded to the announcement of Apple’s anti-tracking tools on Twitter, writing: “If this is about protecting privacy, and not just cute virtue signalling, then [Apple] should block all 3rd party [JavaScript] and pixels”.

At the conference, Apple also announced features aimed at helping users limit the amount of time that they spend on apps such as Instagram, such as by reducing the number of push notifications they receive, as well as a set of tools for sharing photos, games and video calls with groups of contacts. Apple has faced calls from investors to tackle the issue of excessive smartphone use, which has been consistently linked to poor mental health.

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