A group of app developers have penned a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook, arguing that certain privacy-focused changes to Apple’s iOS 13 operating system will hurt their business. In a report by The Information, the developers were said to have accused Apple of anti-competitive behavior when it comes to how apps can access user location data.
With iOS 13, Apple aims to curtail apps’ abuse of its location-tracking features as part of its larger privacy focus as a company.
Today, many apps ask users upon first launch to give their app the “Always Allow” location-tracking permission. Users can confirm this with a tap, unwittingly giving apps far more access to their location data than is actually necessary, in many cases.
In iOS 13, however, Apple has tweaked the way apps can request location data.
There will now be a new option upon launch presented to users, “Allow Once,” which allows users to first explore the app to see if it fits their needs before granting the app developer the ability to continually access location data. This option will be presented alongside existing options “Allow While Using App” and “Don’t Allow.”
The “Always” option is still available, but users will have to head to iOS Settings to manually enable it. (A periodic pop-up will also present the “Always” option, but not right away.)
The app developers argue that this change may confuse less-technical users, who will assume the app isn’t functioning properly unless they figure out how to change their iOS Settings to ensure the app has the proper permissions.
The developers’ argument is a valid assessment of user behavior and how such a change could impact their apps. The added friction of having to go to Settings in order to toggle a switch so an app can function can cause users to abandon apps. It’s also, in part, why apps like Safari ad blockers and iOS replacement keyboards never really went mainstream, as they require extra steps involving the iOS Settings.
That said, the changes Apple is rolling out with iOS 13 don’t actually break these apps entirely — they just require the apps to refine their onboarding instructions to users. Instead of asking for the “Always Allow” permission, they will need to point users to the iOS Settings screen, or limit the apps’ functionality until it’s granted the “Always Allow” permission.
In addition, the developers’ letter pointed out that Apple’s own built-in apps (like Find My) aren’t treated like this, which raises anti-competitive concerns.
The letter also noted that Apple in iOS 13 would not allow developers to use PushKit for any other purpose beyond internet voice calls — again, due to the fact that some developers abused this toolkit to collect private user data.
“We understand that there were certain developers, specifically messaging apps, that were using this as a backdoor to collect user data,” the email said, according to the report. “While we agree loopholes like this should be closed, the current Apple plan to remove [access to the internet voice feature] will have unintended consequences: it will effectively shut down apps that have a valid need for real-time location.”
The letter was signed by Tile CEO CJ Prober; Arity (Allstate) president Gary Hallgren; CEO of Life360, Chris Hullsan; CEO of dating app Happn, Didier Rappaport; CEO of Zenly (Snap), Antoine Martin; CEO of Zendrive, Jonathan Matus; and chief strategy officer of social networking app Twenty, Jared Allgood.
Apple responded to The Information by saying that any changes it makes to the operating system are “in service to the user” and to their privacy. It also noted that any apps it distributes from the App Store have to abide by the same procedures.
It’s another example of how erring on the side of increased user privacy can lead to complications and friction for end users. One possible solution could be allowing apps to present their own in-app Settings screen, where users could toggle the app’s full set of permissions directly — including everything from location data to push notifications to the app’s use of cellular data or Bluetooth sharing.
The news comes at a time when the U.S. Dept. of Justice is considering investigating Apple for anti-competitive behavior. Apple told The Information it was working with some of the impacted developers using PushKit on alternate solutions.