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WWDC 2021: Apple just took its focus on privacy to a whole new level

Updated Jun 7th, 2021 3:48PM EDT
WWDC 2021 announcements
Image: Apple

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Today is one of the biggest days of the year for Apple, with the iPhone maker streaming its annual developers conference, WWDC 2021, live from Apple Park headquarters in Cupertino, California, and packing the event with updates touching pretty much the entirety of its business — from iPhones to iPads, Apple TVs, Macs and more.

For the past few years this has mostly been a software-focused conference, with Monday’s highlight being Apple CEO Tim Cook’s keynote presentation. It preceded the usual rotation of Apple executives cycling through software updates for all the major products in Apple’s hardware lineup, and included in the rundown of individual software updates for the respective Apple products Apple also unveiled a slew of new privacy-focused updates that spans multiple devices across its portfolio.

“Privacy has been central to our work at Apple from the very beginning,” said Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering, Craig Federighi. “Every year, we push ourselves to develop new technology to help users take more control of their data and make informed decisions about whom they share it with. This year’s updates include innovative features that give users deeper insights and more granular control than ever before.”

One of the big updates that immediately jumped out during the presentation includes the major new privacy protections in Mail and Safari, as well as an app privacy report that will let you know what data developers are trying to get from users. Users’ IP address will also not be visible when using Apple’s Safari browser.

The Mail app will now hide your IP address and location, and it also cracks down on the pesky pixels that are embedded in emails that are you used to track how you interact with those missives. And the app privacy report will also show exactly when an app has transmitted your data, and where. This report will give users a summary of how apps are using things like your location, microphone, and camera, and it will also show all the third-party domains that an app is communicating with.

Here’s what the pixel-related update we noted above refers to:

As we reported here, companies are using this email trick to spy on you. Email is increasingly a tempting, juicy target for marketers looking to optimize their chances of getting their messages in front of you and hoping to convert that into some action on your part, such as by you completing a purchase. There are many ways this is done, including clickable links you follow that might take you to a brand’s product page, with the link having included a way for the brand to see basic info about you — like what browser you’re using. Another way that might seem particularly creepy to some people involves a tracker embedded in some emails called a “spy pixel.”

What they are: Spy pixels, basically, are image files that are so small they’re invisible to the eye — yet inserted into the body of an email. Without the recipient even needing to take any action, the pixels in these emails let the sender see if an email was opened, and when it was opened. This is what Apple intends to start blocking.

Among other highlights to note:

  • Here’s what Apple says about the new app privacy report, which will arrive as part of a software update to iOS 15, iPadOS 15, and watchOS 8: “With App Privacy Report, users can see how often each app has used the permission they’ve previously granted to access their location, photos, camera, microphone, and contacts during the past seven days. Users can check whether this makes sense to them, and take action by going to the app in Settings if it doesn’t. Users can also find out with whom their data may be shared by seeing all the third-party domains an app is contacting.”
  • Apple also announced iCloud+, which includes a new built-in internet privacy service called Private Relay. When browsing with Safari, for example, Private Relay “ensures all traffic leaving a user’s device is encrypted, so no one between the user and the website they are visiting can access and read it, not even Apple or the user’s network provider. All the user’s requests are then sent through two separate internet relays.”

In a note he sent to clients in the days leading up to WWDC 2021, Wedbush Securities analyst Daniel Ives wrote that Apple’s new App Tracking Transparency policy puts the iPhone maker “on a collision course with Facebook around the ability of users to block data tracking.” Continued Ives in his note: “We expect data privacy and security to be a main focus and theme of (Apple CEO Tim) Cook’s keynote as Apple solidifies its privacy policy with the iOS 15 unveil.”

Apple certainly delivered on that front during the privacy-focused portion of the opening-day WWDC presentation on Monday. Another big takeaway from this portion of Apple’s presentation: Hoo boy, advertisers are probably going to loathe these and other related updates.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.