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Apple’s privacy labels could change how apps collect your data

December 16, 2020, 2:47 PM UTC

Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis was a tireless crusader for human rights who fought to regulate monopoly businesses and end the corrupt business practices of his time. Before joining the court in 1916, he also helped formulate the individual right to privacy in an 1890 law review article. Obviously this was way before the Internet, but it’s still a relevant read today.

“Instantaneous photographs and newspaper enterprise have invaded the sacred precincts of private and domestic life,” Brandeis wrote in the essay co-authored by Samuel Warren. “And numerous mechanical devices threaten to make good the prediction that ‘what is whispered in the closet shall be proclaimed from the house-tops.'”

Brandeis is also the person who, some years later, popularized the phrase in favor of transparency in government and business that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” He actually wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” But the pithier, shorter version became popular. Everyone needs a good editor.

I was reminded of the former Associate Justice this week when Apple rolled out its “App Privacy Details” program, or as it’s become known more widely, privacy nutrition labels. You can see them on any app that’s been updated this week, and all apps (even all of Apple’s apps) will have the disclosures eventually. Here’s the one for the Taco Bell app:

As you can see, the labels are divided into several sections. The first part, called “Data Used to Track You,” tells you what specific data the app is using for tracking users beyond the app, such as an email address or one of the identifiers created by the ad industry. The second section, called “Data Linked to You,” shows the kind of data collected, like purchases, usage of the app, location, etc. A third section, called “Data Not Linked to You,” shows information an app is collecting but not tracking specific to each user.

The more revealing details come if you click on one of the sections. Then the label reveals what data is collected and lists it in one of six categories based on how the app developer is using it (such as third-party advertising, product personalization, or the dreaded “other purposes,” which Apple leaves as a vague catch-all).

Taco Bell’s app doesn’t look too scary, but check out the listing for Facebook in the app store on your iPhone. It just scrolls and scrolls.

On the other hand, we all know Facebook collects a ton of info. I doubt the sunshine of this disclosure will act as enough of a disinfectant to prompt much change by Facebook. That’s going to take public campaigns, regulatory actions, maybe new laws. It’s like a nutrition label on a Twinkie. We already know it’s packed with sugar and artificial ingredients.

But I am hoping that the new labels help curb the widespread creepy and even dangerous data collection by apps that aren’t as well known as Facebook.

Many apps, particularly free gaming apps, embed ad industry code to track and collect data that doesn’t have anything to do with the functions of the app (although they request for permission when you install the app). In a revealing report, Washington Post tech columnist Geoffrey Fowler last year found his iPhone was riddled with 5,400 trackers reporting his activity to an array of unknown companies. A more recent CNN report looked at the data collected about pre-schoolers.

These cases are more like the nutrition labels that let us know that some cans of soup are packed with added sugar and some cheese slices have enough artificial ingredients to almost glow in the dark. Truly useful—and horrifying.

Apple is already planning a crackdown on one way the ad industry tracks users, but more can be done to discourage tracking in the first place. Because plenty of what’s now whispered to your smartphone definitely should not be proclaimed from the house-tops.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

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BEFORE YOU GO

I know director Chris Nolan isn't happy about it, but I had to take in his latest twisty thriller masterpiece, Tenet, on the small screen. Sorry, Chris. It was still a mind-bending, globe-trotting joy ride of a movie that will be invading my thoughts for weeks to come. Four stars.