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Security & privacy

Can you trust Apple’s new app privacy labels? One report says no

Do you remember in mid-2020 when Apple said it would start requiring app developers to spell out what data they gather from users? Late last year, those changes finally rolled out for iOS 14.3.

Those informational labels’ goal — also known as nutrition labels — is to show what data your apps collect about you. This information has to be submitted to Apple by developers before any updates or new apps will be added to the App Store. Tap or click here for a more in-depth look at Apple’s nutrition labels.

But while these labels are now required of third-party developers by Apple, it turns out they may not be as accurate as you would hope. A new report suggests that much of the app nutrition labels’ data is false, meaning you aren’t getting the information you need on the app’s data practices.

Here’s the backstory

A new study by the Washington Post into the accuracy of privacy disclosures in Apple’s App Store has led to some troubling findings. While these labels are supposed to give you clear information on what data is being gathered by apps you use, it turns out a significant number of these labels appear to false.

According to the report, the apps were tested with a former National Security Agency researcher’s help. It’s not clear how many apps were spot-checked during the investigation, but what is clear is that a large portion of the apps was found to have major issues.

Here’s what was found:

  • About 1 in 3 app labels that were looked at offered false information. According to the investigation, these apps were reporting that they collected no data, which is completely false.
  • Some of the apps found to be reporting false information about data practices include Match 3D, the social network Rumble, Satisfying Slime Simulator and PBS Kids Video.
  • The Satisfying Slime Simulator app was particularly troublesome. It was found to be sending information on the users’ iPhone IDFA, battery level, free storage space, volume setting, and general location to Facebook, Google and GameAnalytics.

It’s unclear how many apps in total were offering false information on data collection and usage practices. However, this issue appears to stem from Apple’s dependency on third-party developers to both comply and be upfront about their data usage policies.

There is currently no process in place by Apple to collect this information on its own. While required of app developers, it appears that many either still haven’t provided this information to Apple or have submitted false information instead.

Apple issued a statement to Washington Post about the results of the investigation, stating: “Apple conducts routine and ongoing audits of the information provided and we work with developers to correct any inaccuracies. Apps that fail to disclose privacy information accurately may have future app updates rejected, or in some cases, be removed from the App Store entirely if they don’t come into compliance.”

How this affects you

If you’re using an iPhone or Apple device, this issue affects you directly. While you may believe the apps you’re using are limiting their data sharing practices after looking at the nutrition labels, that could turn out to be unreliable.

It’s important to know what data is collected about you and how it’s used. Data gathering and sharing permissions can range greatly from app to app, and it’s not uncommon for some apps to gather personal information on you. That information can be sold or shared with other companies, and many apps harvest personal information.

Apps can gather everything from your search history, location, the device you’re using, the ads you’ve clicked on, your interests or even the time of day you are visiting a site. That’s a lot of information that you may not want to be tracked.

You can often limit what the apps have access to by changing a few settings. However, without an app truthfully disclosing what it gathers, you may not even know what to limit in your permissions.

How to check what apps are collecting on you

If you’re using an iPhone, you may want to take the time to verify what data is being collected on your own. After you know what information is being collected, you can limit what your apps have access to.

To do this:

  1. Open the Settings app on your iOS device.
  2. Scroll to Privacy.
  3. In Privacy, you should see all of the app permissions that your iPhone or iPad has. This includes Location Services, Contacts, Calendars, Camera, Microphone, Health, Motion & Fitness and other permissions.
  4. Tap a specific permission to see which apps are requesting it.
  5. Toggle on or off to allow or deny permission to track the information in each category.
    • Note: You will have the option to review each app’s location data access. Depending on the app, you may want to allow location permissions while using the app.

Other important Apple updates

The good news? Apple’s next App Tracking Transparency beta update will require apps to get the user’s permission before tracking their data across apps or websites owned by other companies. This upcoming change was noted in a recent update from Apple.

According to Apple, when the new beta update rolls out, users will see which apps have requested permission to track. They will also be able to make changes as they see fit.

There is no firm date for the release yet. However, Apple stated that the update should roll out broadly in early spring as part of the upcoming release of iOS 14, iPadOS 14, and tvOS 14.

The bottom line

While the results of this investigation were troubling, it appears Apple is taking steps to give users more ownership over the data permissions gained by their apps. The new update will add another layer of protection and you will be able to make easy changes to tracking and limit permissions. Until that happens, there are ways to limit what apps can gather on you. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user, it would be wise to use them.

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