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A study by Aalto University has put Apple's privacy claims under scrutiny, revealing that essential applications on Apple devices collect data even without user activation, challenging the tech giant's "Privacy. That's Apple" slogan. For the first time, researchers have delved into the privacy settings of Apple's built-in applications, which are nearly impossible to avoid upon setting up a new device, whether it be a computer, tablet, or smartphone.

Focusing on applications integral to the Apple ecosystem, such as Safari, Siri, Family Sharing, iMessage, FaceTime, Location Services, Find My, and Touch ID, the study examined publicly available privacy-related information from technical documentation to privacy policies and user manuals. The findings underscored the fragility of privacy protection, surprising even the researchers.

Professor Janne Lindqvist, head of the Department of Computer Science at Aalto University, expressed concern over the discrepancy between user expectations and reality. For instance, while users may choose to enable or disable Siri, Apple's voice-activated virtual assistant, the decision affects only the use of voice commands, not Siri's background data collection, which occurs regardless of the user's choice unless specific settings are manually adjusted.

Participants in the study were unable to prevent any of the tested applications from sharing their data with other apps or service providers, despite attempts to follow Apple's guidelines for limiting data sharing. The process of protecting privacy on Apple devices turned out to require persistent and knowledgeable effort, with Apple's assistance deemed insufficient.

The study highlighted the complexity and confusion of online instructions for restricting data use, distributed across various settings without clear direction. In addition, participants found privacy settings difficult to locate and adjust, often becoming lost in the process without feedback on the success of their attempts.

Given the difficulty of stopping data sharing, the study raises questions about Apple's use of collected data, which, according to Professor Lindqvist, likely supports the training of Siri's underlying AI system and ensures a personalized user experience. While many users appreciate the seamless integration across Apple devices, the study suggests Apple could provide clearer information about privacy settings and data usage.

To mitigate some privacy concerns, the study participants had switched to third-party services, such as replacing Safari with Firefox. However, the overarching lesson appears to be the near impossibility of completely safeguarding privacy from Apple, posing a significant challenge for users.

The research findings will be presented at the CHI conference in mid-May, the premier international forum for the study of human-computer interaction, with the publication already available online. This study not only challenges Apple's privacy practices but also calls for more transparent and user-friendly privacy controls across the tech industry.

HT

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