Apple May Want To Protect Your Phone Data From Snooping, But It's Snarfing Up Your Local Desktop Searches

from the oops dept

So, Apple got plenty of kudos from security and privacy folks in deciding to encrypt mobile phone data, but over on the desktop side, apparently the message hasn’t quite gotten through. Instead, it appears that the latest Mac operation system has the company automatically sending all of your desktop searches back to Apple. These aren’t internet searches, but just what you’re searching for locally.

The function is part of Spotlight search, which was updated with last week?s launch of new Mac computers and Apple?s latest operating system, Yosemite OS X, which also is available for download to owners of older machines. Once Yosemite is installed, users searching for files ? even on their own hard drives — have their locations, unique user IDs and search terms automatically sent to the company, keystroke by keystroke.

A pop-up window discloses the change, saying collecting the data helps provide results ?more relevant to you? as Spotlight also looks beyond individual computers to gather information across the Internet, much like popular search engines such as Google already do. But privacy advocates worry that users won?t understand what information is collected and how to stop the transmission of data to Apple, which happens by default.

And, if you think there’s no big deal in having this data collected, think again.

Testing by The Washington Post found that the locations revealed in Spotlight searches can be strikingly precise, placing a user within a particular building in Washington, D.C., even though the disclosure box on Spotlight refers to collecting ?your approximate location.”

In addition to sharing information with Apple, Spotlight also actively downloads relevant Web pages and Wikipedia articles about the topics covered by a search query, revealing potentially sensitive information about the user?s activities to other Web sites as well.

You can (and perhaps should) turn off this “feature” — and you can see how in some specific cases there may be beneficial reasons for individuals to share this information, the idea of having it on by default just seems like a privacy nightmare.

Filed Under: , , ,
Companies: apple

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Apple May Want To Protect Your Phone Data From Snooping, But It's Snarfing Up Your Local Desktop Searches”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Misha Springfield says:

This reminds me of Ubuntu doing this with Dash… and, given past indications, I’d say it’s safe to assume that Apple does this in a more intrusive way than Canonical did.

Canonical initially sent a trademark C&D to As Apple is historically more litigious than Canonical, I guess we can expect them to react with a nastygram before long… (Not that I’m looking forward to it. It’d suck for the people involved.)

In any case, way to destroy that modicum of goodwill you might have temporarily had with your phone encryption, Apple. Though, somehow, I don’t think the backlash will be as loud as Canonical had it… fanboi will be fanboi.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yes, not to mention the “enhanced” search facilities on Windows 8 & 10.

I don’t understand this trend to unified searches at all. Not only does it make searching locally using your OS dangerous from a privacy point of view, but it degrades the actual search. If I’m searching my hard drive for something, I never want online search results to be included for it, and vice versa.

Rabbit80 (profile) says:

Testing by The Washington Post found that the locations revealed in Spotlight searches can be strikingly precise, placing a user within a particular building in Washington, D.C., even though the disclosure box on Spotlight refers to collecting “your approximate location.”

Is this the same Washington Post that thinks there is a difference between a ‘Golden Key’ and a backdoor?

According to an Apple statement published on Ars Technica:

For Spotlight Suggestions we minimize the amount of information sent to Apple. Apple doesn’t retain IP addresses from users’ devices. Spotlight blurs the location on the device so it never sends an exact location to Apple. Spotlight doesn’t use a persistent identifier, so a user’s search history can’t be created by Apple or anyone else. Apple devices only use a temporary anonymous session ID for a 15-minute period before the ID is discarded.

We also worked closely with Microsoft to protect our users’ privacy. Apple forwards only commonly searched terms and only city-level location information to Bing. Microsoft does not store search queries or receive users’ IP addresses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apple explains itself? It’s now making justifications as to why it needs this new feature? Howabout getting rid of the feature completely. There’s no justification that Apple can make that would convince me as to why Apple needs to know what I’m searching for on my own PC, iMac or laptop.

This is a bad move on Apple’s part and it’s going to ultimately backfire on the company.

Rabbit80 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s pretty simple really – Spotlight offers a unified search by default – just like the Windows 8/8.1 search screen.

This unified search sends your query over to Apple who then pass it to Bing to return web results alongside your local search.

It is a feature that can easily be disabled.

I’m not a fan of Apple, but this is really no different to what Microsoft are doing with Windows 8, Ubuntu is doing with unity etc. I have no doubt Microsoft use IP geolocation if they don’t tap into your location directly.

The main issue is that it also sends Apple your location and other identifying information – which the Apple statement addresses.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

“It is a feature that can easily be disabled.”


Perhaps today.

But the history of such things is that their mere existence is a serious security/privacy threat, because — in time — they will become ever more deeply embedded and harder to disable. And of course they make an attacker’s job much simpler: they need not craft all the code required to do this, they only need to hijack code that already exists.

I excised all instances of Ubuntu from my data center in response to Canonical’s decision to spy on users and forward their data to spammers. (Yes, really. Look it up.) This “feature” doesn’t need to be disabled, it needs to be removed immediately.

Gwiz (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

However, there was an enormous fuss made over the move by Ubuntu, and lots of people stopped using it as a result.

I cut my Linux teeth with Ubuntu (well actually, it was Damn Small Linux first because I had a crappy laptop then) and I switched over to Debian around this time because of this fiasco and also because of Canonical wanting make their software app store an integral part of the OS and the push to make Unity the default desktop.

I don’t feel like I have lost out on very much since Canonical pushes their updates back downstream to Debian anyways.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

I went through several different distros before I settled on Debian (which I still think is the best distro overall). They irony is that if Debian ends up requiring systemd, I will have to change again. Slackware is topping my list of where to go to at this point, but they may adopt systemd as well — in which case, I’ll become a BSD man.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:6 Re:

“Can’t you just turn off systemd?”

Technically, yes. In practice, no — because there are a lot of very important applications that depend on the GTK, which depends on systemd.

This is the thing that makes systemd poisonous — it’s not just an init system. It replaces so many non-init portions of the OS in a nonstandard way that the resulting upstream dependencies make it nonoptional.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

This would fit with Apple’s usual stance. They apparently view themselves as virtuous and so sending data to them is always OK as long as they don’t pass it on to anyone else.

This is the same company that defines “personally identifiable information” to specifically exclude obvious pieces of PII such as your location or the ID number associated with the device.

Anonymous Coward says:

Apple, like other big corporations and the TLAs have the have the good guys syndrome :-

When we collect the information, its not a breach of your rights but a a means of giving you better service or protection. Its only when the bad guys, whoever they are, get the information that it is a breach of your rights.

They do not see that they are part of the problem, as they would never misuse the data, where their uses of the data are not misuses, and neither are their own governments uses. Some foreign governments may abuse the data that they demand from them, but that is the price of doing business in those countries.

Monday (user link) says:


These arguments are all pretty much the same anywhere you click. There was never a slippery-slope, it was an avalanche, and we got buried in so much legalese that we don’t really have a chance at stopping any so called invasion of our privacy anymore. I use the same cell phone I bought in 2002. It sends receives texts; I don’t have a camera; I don’t need internet… and I don’t need a recharge every four or six hours. I flew across the country three times in one week, and I didn’t plug it in once. Made alot of calls that week.
Our privacy is no problem to the people who are expected to provide it for us, and we get surprised when it is discovered that “they” are watching [almost] every move we make. It shouldn’t be a surprise; it’s all part of the deal now. We can’t prevent it, we can only go shopping for the next provider of our wares for the promised protection they expound.
I honestly don’t think that Apple is keeping Phone data all that private as well, given the free reign they recently displayed with the 1/2 billion uploads Apple & U2 recently dumped. This was done without user permission, but somehow, somewhere it is loosely translated in the service agreement that Apple could actually do this –

So, is it so unexpected that Apple is collecting this data? Not really IMO, but then, I’ve reached the point where I really don’t give a shit anymore. Someone somewhere is going to see my traffic/visits/choices et al, and as long as I’m the only one with the passwords, whatever…

Nice post Masnick 🙂

Coyne Tibbets (profile) says:

So typical

For some time now, almost every company has aded that new-age weasel-wording to their privacy policy:

“From time to time we will make changes to our service to enhance your experience.

Such “enhancements” almost always grab more control over your life and turn over more data to the company. Or else “twice as much enhancing spam!”

“Enhancement” translates to “enhance our bottom line” and if the customer doesn’t like it, too bad.

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...