We read Apple’s 19-page privacy declaration so you don’t have to

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Among other iPhone privacy topics, Apple explained to U.S. lawmakers that if your iPhone is tracking you, it's because you've given it permission to.
Photo: Ste Smith/Cult of Mac

Privacy has become a hot-button issue, and a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives recently sent Apple some questions about iPhone privacy protections. These were about location tracking, audio recordings, and third-party applications.

The in-depth responses spell out Apple’s strong commitment to iPhone user’s privacy in all these areas.

The 16 questions came from the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce. The 19-page response was penned by Timothy Powderly, Apple’s Director of Federal Government Affairs. 

iPhone privacy and location tracking

The first 8 questions were about location tracking, and how the resulting information is sent from the phone to Apple.

The iPhone maker responded in detail, but a summarization is that iOS offers a switch on Settings to toggle location tracking. If it’s off, there is no tracking. Even when it’s on, users can give or deny each application access to location data.

“Consistent with Apple’s position on privacy, the choice of whether to take advantage of location-based services is solely up to the user,” wrote Powderly.

iPhone and microphone recordings

Some people harbor a fear that their phone is always listening to them. There were two questions specifically about from the lawmakers. One asks “Do Apple’s iPhone devices collect audio recordings of users without consent?” The company’s answer is a straightforward “No.”

Powderly also explained to them that the process of recognizing that a user has said “Hey Siri” happens entirely on the device, so everything the user says isn’t the being uploaded.

After the “clear, unambiguous audio trigger” has been recognized by the iPhone, processing specific voice commands to Siri is generally done on Apple servers. Recordings are saved, but not under the user’s Apple ID but under a random device identifier. All it takes to erase these recordings is to toggle Siri Dictation off then on again. That also resets the RDI.

Third-party applications like voice recorders can make recordings, but only when it’s clear to the user they are doing so. 

iPhone and third-party software

The Representatives also had a number of questions about how Apple prevents iOS applications in the App Store from violating user privacy.

Again, Apple answered these questions in detail, but, in summary, it puts limits on what applications can do, but it’s generally up to users to decide what they are comfortable with.

“The Apple store is a marketplace for third party apps and, when a customer chooses to download an app to an Apple device, the customer and app developer enter into a direct contractual relationship with one another governed by the terms of the developer’s end user license agreement and privacy policy. Apple is not a party to these relationships,” Powderly explained.

But before going into Apple’s store, each app much meet its guidelines. In many ways, these are checks to be sure that the software conforms to its own privacy policy. For example, an app can’t ask for permission to use the microphone without a stated reason why, and what’s going to happen to any recordings.

Apple and iPhone privacy

For Apple, all of these were “softball” questions because it takes a strong stance on privacy. It’s an area where Apple differs from other high-tech firms

“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right and purposely design our products and services to minimize our collection of customer data. When we do collect data, we’re transparent about it and work to disassociated from the user,” pointed out Powderly to the U.S. Representatives.