Apple's privacy 'nutrition labels' are about to make people very uneasy about the apps they use every day

  • Apple took another step toward emphasizing privacy for its users, announcing at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June that it would require developers to add a label in the App Store that explains what information they collect and how that information is used.
  • Apps often collect data on users for relevant purposes, such as location tracking, but also Facebook and Google can use that information to serve Apple users targeted ads.
  • Developers have until December 8 to comply or they won't be able to provide new apps or updates to their existing apps.
  • These labels, much like nutritional labels on food, will force users to see who's collecting information on them and make decisions on whether they're OK with that, says columnist Jason Aten.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

Apple has long made a point of emphasizing that it believes "privacy is a fundamental human right." As a result, the iPhone maker doesn't track what you do on your devices or online in order to show you ads. 

Unfortunately, the same can't be said about many of the apps you probably use every day.

To solve that problem, Apple announced at its Worldwide Developer Conference in June that it would require developers to add a label in the App Store that explains what information they collect about users and how that information is used. As Katie Skinner, Apple's manager of user privacy software, said during the keynote, apps will now have to disclose "if they're sharing data with other companies to track you." 

According to Apple's Developer News page, "This information will be required to submit new apps and app updates to the App Store starting December 8, 2020." Apple is now putting developers on notice that they have a month to comply or they won't be able to continue providing new apps or updates to their existing apps.

That's a big deal for two reasons.

First, a lot of apps track what you do. In some cases, that makes sense. For example, a weather app needs to know at least your general location in order to show you a forecast for your area. The same is true for an app like DoorDash, which needs to know your precise location to make sure a delivery driver shows up at the right place with your Chipotle burrito bowl. 

On the other hand, many of those apps share information about your activity with companies like Facebook and Google, who use it to show you "relevant ads." That's an entirely different thing, and it's something that Apple believes should involve more transparency so that users can make informed decisions. 

Second, most people probably have a general understanding that tracking is happening on some level, but are sort of blissfully ignorant about what happens when they use apps on their iPhone or iPad. It's much easier not to think about the extent to which those companies know what we're doing on our devices. 

The very reason that the advertising model works is that people simply don't think about the fact that their activity and information is being monetized, mostly by Google and Facebook. 

That's why people complain that they're sure Facebook is listening to their conversations. How else would the social media giant know that you're thinking about buying a new watch or planning a trip to Costa Rica. (Well, for now, dreaming about some time in the future when you'll be able to plan a trip to Costa Rica.) 

It's not listening, by the way. It's just that good at gathering and tracking your activity. 

It's creepy when you think about it, yet people still use Facebook because they like that it helps them stay connected to people. In fact, 2.7 billion people use Facebook every month. The only explanation I can think of is that people just don't think about it enough to care what the real cost is. 

Which, by the way, is the same reason people eat junk food. It tastes really good, and as long as you don't think about what's really inside, you can just keep eating.

That's why it's really smart that Apple chose the visual metaphor of a "nutrition label" to explain how your privacy is affected by the apps you use. The label on the food you buy at the store discloses the ingredients and nutritional value of what you eat. The goal is to help people make better decisions about how that food affects their health.

Apple's label, on the other hand, tells you about how an app affects your privacy. In some ways, that's just as important. Your iPhone contains some of the most sensitive personal information about you. In many cases, the apps on your phone contain information including your location, the people you communicate with, your bank and credit card information, and what you do online. None of that is information any of us should want shared, especially without our knowledge and consent.

Until there was a standardized label, most people had no idea whether the food they ate was healthy since all they had to go on was the product marketing. Of course, there are plenty of people who still don't look at the label, or even care whether the food they eat has any nutritional value. 

The same is true for how the apps you use affect your privacy. You should know what information an app is collecting, and more importantly, how it shares that information with other companies. By making a consistent way to find this information, at least users will be able to make a more informed decision about what they put on their phone. 

Whether they actually do is another question.

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This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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