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Apple set to offer sign-in service to rival Facebook and Google

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In the wake of data-privacy scandals, Apple is beefing up protection for owners of its devices.

Apple’s iPhone sales may be flagging and its move to start making its own movies and TV shows in competition with Netflix and Amazon is an expensive gamble, but the Silicon Valley behemoth can be thankful for one thing – it never got into the social-media game or built a business around extracting users’ data to sell advertising, as Facebook and Google did.

That distinction now gives Apple an advantage over its rivals. US and European regulators are circling the tech giants, finally roused to action following high-profile data breaches and the realisation by many of us that nothing is free on the web; that we are the product as we share details of our online activity.

Apple has long claimed, with some justification, to take users’ privacy seriously. It encrypts the contents of iPhones and messages sent to and from its devices. Its artificial-intelligence tools do their work on the phone rather than sending data to a server in the cloud.

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Last week saw it go a step further in a bid to protect owners of its devices from having their data harvested as they surf the web. Apple revealed at its annual conference for software developers that it will introduce its own service for logging into websites without having to enter your username and password.

We’ve seen similar one-click sign-in services from Facebook, Google and Amazon become popular. They take the hassle out of remembering account details. But convenience comes at a price. Those companies are able to track our movements on the web and share some of our data with the website and app owners offering those sign-in badges.

Sign In with Apple, which will debut with iOS 13, the iPhone’s new operating system set for release in September, will be different. It will employ a user’s Apple ID to authenticate logging into a website, but won’t share any personal details with the website or app. Instead, it will serve up a random ID.

If apps or websites request an email address to log in, Apple will generate a random email address on your behalf, keeping your real one private. It will use the Face ID face-recognition system and Touch ID fingerprint sensor to verify identity and, most importantly, claims it won’t profile its users or their activity in apps and on websites.

Another new privacy feature will give users more control over what location data they share with apps with the option for one-time location sharing rather than continuous background tracking.

Craig Federighi: privacy a human right. Photo/Supplied

Those are big privacy benefits for Apple users, although we should expect them when we are shelling out for a costly iPhone X or MacBook Pro. Still, you won’t need to be an Apple device owner to use the Sign In with Apple feature. It will just be a bit more complicated, requiring signing in via a website.

Developers seem to like the idea of limiting Facebook and Google’s ability to track their app users, but they may miss out on collecting some valuable data themselves. Apple is requiring that those apps offering Facebook and Google sign-in options also include its sign-in service.

“We believe privacy is a fundamental human right,” Apple senior vice-president Craig Federighi says. Many third-party iPhone apps employ trackers to send data back to their creators, sometimes in the dead of night and with our consent, whether we fully realise it or not.

Apple may have the edge on privacy, but it still has work to do. One of the new Apple Watch features showcased last week will allow women to track their menstrual cycles on their watch and phone, using the data to predict periods and fertility windows. The data will be encrypted on watches and phones and anonymised.

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica and other data-privacy scandals, with big tech companies gathering ever more intimate types of details about us, it is the ones that make genuine privacy a built-in feature that will thrive.  

Peter Griffin attended the Worldwide Developers Conference as a guest of Apple.

This article was first published in the June 22, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.