Apple has promoted its user-focused privacy stance heavily, partly to provide a market difference between itself and Amazon, Google, and Facebook, among other companies that have varying levels of competition with it. But it generally plays out that Apple tries to give itself access to the least amount of information about you and the least amount of your private information that it can.
A friend’s question prompted a look at which apps and services Apple tracks directly and uses for recommendations and advertising, and which it keeps its hands fully off. In some cases, Apple doesn’t interact with data at all, in some it only provides device-based results and never has access to the data via its services or centrally, and in others, it openly admits what it uses, and may give you the ability to disable its use of it.
Apple often employs end-to-end encryption (E2EE for short) for very private data. E2EE relies on encryption keys stored on each of your devices and to which Apple has no access. When iOS, iPadOS, and macOS synchronize information among your devices using E2EE, Apple can’t decrypt that information, and you also can’t gain access to it via iCloud.com.
Here’s an overview of the major apps and services you should know about, how it uses the data collected, and what Apple does to protect your privacy.
Apple digital stores
What you do in the App Store, Books, and other Apple digital stores affects how Apple “personalizes” ads and makes recommendations about related products. In iOS, turn off personalized ads at Settings > Privacy > Apple Advertising > Personalized Ads. You can disable recommendations at Settings > account name > Media & Purchases > Personalized Recommendations.
Purchase trust score
Apple tracks your use of your devices, including “the approximate number of phone calls or emails you send and receive,” in scoring whether a given purchase is legitimate to prevent fraud. However, the score is figured out on your device, Apple can’t reverse engineer it to know what factored into it, and it deletes the data after a short period.
Apple doesn’t track your transactions, and it creates a unique payment ID for each purchase with a merchant. It does show your Apple Card transactions, which it manages in association with the credit-card issuer.
Health data is stored on device and encrypted. While you can back it up (securely), you can’t sync Health data across devices.
You might notice Maps remembers where you parked your car. Does it share that with Apple? No. It’s all generated on your device only.
Apple has no access to the content of your messages, which use E2EE for sending to and receiving from messages other people and for syncing across your devices.
Apple doesn’t track what you read. It uses an anonymized ID not associated with your Apple ID to take your reading habits and preferences (when you mark wanting to see more or fewer articles like one you’re reading) to provide more articles that seem to match your interests.
People in the Photos app
Identification of people by name in photos happens on device, and those associations are only synced via E2EE. Apple has no access to the names or sets of faces.
Your iPhone or iPad keeps tracking the places you visit that it thinks are “significant” according to an algorithm Apple doesn’t disclose. You can see these Significant Locations at Settings > Privacy > Location Services > System Services > Significant Locations. This data is used to show you customized and tailored information on your device, like predicting traffic along a route, warning you about AirTags near you when you’re at one of these locations, or providing Memories in Photos. Apple only stores the information on your device and uses E2EE for syncing.
Siri voice recognition is performed anonymously off device using a randomized ID, and anything related to you that’s on device isn’t sent to Apple centrally. Apple faced a storm of criticism for allowing contractors to review Siri messages to improve the service without disclosure to users or a way to opt out. It changed that.
Apple has an even more exhaustive rundown on its site that details these and other apps in greater depth.
This Mac 911 article is in response to a question submitted by Rebecca.
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Glenn Fleishman is the author of dozens of books. His most recent include Take Control of Your M-Series Mac, Take Control of Securing Your Mac, Take Control of Zoom, and Six Centuries of Type and Printing. In his spare time, he makes Tiny Type Museums. He’s a senior contributor to Macworld, where he writes Mac 911.