Following the official release of Apple’s latest desktop operating system, news broke that OS X Yosemite secretly sends Spotlight search data to Apple (including location information), even though the company doubled down on privacy and security more than once in recent weeks. However, things aren’t as bad as you might think, and Apple’s data collection is done in a specific way that actually prevents the company from tracking you. Finally, data collection isn’t covert because Apple clearly explains it, and it can be easily turned off if you so desire, something Apple also explains how to do.
In a story on Monday, The Washington Post noted a Spotlight search feature that can send search data to Apple along with location information every time the user performs a search. “Once Yosemite is installed, users searching for files – even on their own hard drives — have their locations, unique identifying codes and search terms automatically sent to the company, keystroke by keystroke. The same is true for devices using Apple’s latest mobile operating system, iOS 8,” the publication wrote.
The feature is meant to offer search results “more relevant to you,” as Apple informs users in a people message, but that doesn’t also mean Apple is harvesting personal data.
Quoting Apple’s own privacy-related documents, The Verge explains that there are five types of information transmitted in a search: the approximate location, the device type, the client app, the language settings and the previous three apps used by the user. The information is grouped under an “ephemeral session ID which automatically resets every 15 minutes,” which means collected data can’t be used for marketing purposes.
Finally the data is sent over an HTTPS connection, meaning it can’t be intercepted by third parties.
In case that’s still not good for the more paranoid Yosemite users, there are ways to limit Apple’s data collection powers. Users can tell their computers not to use their location (by going to Preferences, Security & Privacy and then Location Services), and can prevent Spotlight from collecting any data — as Wired points out, they have to go to Preferences, then Spotlight, and then uncheck three options, including Spotlight Suggestions, Bookmarks & History, and Bing Web Searches. Simply clicking on the About Spotlight Suggestions & Privacy button opens a window that explains Apple’s data collection practices (image above), and how to turn them off.
“We are absolutely committed to protecting our users’ privacy and have built privacy right into our products. 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,” the company said in a statement.
“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. You can also easily opt out of Spotlight Suggestions, Bing or Location Services for Spotlight,” Apple added.
And if all that isn’t good enough, you can always dump Spotlight entirely and use a third-party app called Alfred instead, which is actually better than Spotlight in some ways.