Apple only lets you access iPhone apps through its own App Store, which it says keeps everything safe. It appeared to bolster that idea when it announced in 2020 that it would ask app makers to fill out what are essentially privacy nutrition labels. Just like packaged food has to disclose how much sugar it contains, apps would have to disclose in clear terms how they gobble your data. The labels appear in boxes toward the bottom of app listings. (Click here for my guide on how to read privacy nutrition labels.)
But after I studied the labels, the App Store is now a product I trust less to protect us. In some ways, Apple uses a narrow definition of privacy that benefits Apple — which has its own profit motivations — more than it benefits us.
Apple’s big privacy product is built on a shaky foundation: the honor system. In tiny print on the detail page of each app label, Apple says, “This information has not been verified by Apple.”
The first time I read that, I did a double take. Apple, which says caring for our privacy is a “core responsibility,” surely knows devil-may-care data harvesters can’t be counted on to act honorably. Apple, which made an estimated $64 billion off its App Store last year, shares in the responsibility for what it publishes.
It’s true that just by asking apps to highlight data practices, Apple goes beyond Google’s rival Play Store for Android phones. It has also promised to soon make apps seek permission to track us, which Facebook has called an abuse of Apple’s monopoly over the App Store.
In an email, Apple spokeswoman Katie Clark-AlSadder said: “Apple conducts routine and ongoing audits of the information provided and we work with developers to correct any inaccuracies. Apps that fail to disclose privacy information accurately may have future app updates rejected, or in some cases, be removed from the App Store entirely if they don’t come into compliance.”
My spot checks suggest Apple isn’t being very effective.
And even when they are filled out correctly, what are Apple’s privacy labels allowing apps to get away with not telling us?
Trust but verify
A tip from a tech-savvy Washington Post reader helped me realize something smelled fishy. He was using a journaling app that claimed not to collect any data but, using some technical tools, he spotted it talking an awful lot to Google.
To be clear, I don’t know exactly how widespread the falsehoods are on Apple’s privacy labels. My sample wasn’t necessarily representative: There are about 2 million apps, and some big companies, like Google, have yet to even post labels. (They’re only required to do so with new updates.) About 1 in 3 of the apps I checked that claimed they took no data appeared to be inaccurate. “Apple is the only one in a position to do this on all the apps,” says Jackson.
But if a journalist and a talented geek could find so many problems just by kicking over a few stones, why isn’t Apple?
Even after I sent it a list of dubious apps, Apple wouldn’t answer my specific questions, including: How many bad apps has it caught? If being inaccurate means you get the boot, why are some of the ones I flagged still available?
We need help to fend off the surveillance economy. Apple’s App Store isn’t doing enough, but we also have no alternative. Apple insists on having a monopoly in running app stores for iPhones and iPads. In testimony to Congress about antitrust concerns last summer, Apple CEO Tim Cook argued that Apple alone can protect our security.
Other industries that make products that could harm consumers don’t necessarily get to write the rules for themselves. The Food and Drug Administration sets the standards for nutrition labels. We can debate whether it’s good at enforcement, but at least when everyone has to work with the same labels, consumers can get smart about reading them — and companies face the penalty of law if they don’t tell the truth.
Apple’s privacy labels are not only an unsatisfying product. They should also send a message to lawmakers weighing whether the tech industry can be trusted to protect our privacy on its own.