Does the iPhone 13 really respect your privacy? It's a balancing act

This article may contain personal views and opinion from the author.
Does the iPhone 13 really respect your privacy? It's a balancing act
In 2019 Apple put the following text on a billboard ad: "What happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone". Around that time, Apple also commissioned billboards featuring the slogan "Privacy. That's iPhone."

Simple, iconic marketing aiming to convince you that if you care about personal privacy, an iPhone is the smartphone you should buy instead of one made by Google, Samsung, or another Android-based competitor.

Personal privacy should be anyone's concern, and Apple is indeed one of the most vocal smartphone makers when it comes to it, and often uses its stance on privacy as a selling point.

With the release of the iPhone 13, the trillion-dollar Cupertino company was eager to point out that the A15 Bionic chip inside of its new phones is "privacy-protecting". And Apple's current stance on privacy is beautifully reassuring:

Those aren't just empty words, Apple has done plenty to prove to its users that it values their privacy, with the most recent example being the implementation of App Tracking Transparency in iOS 14.5.

This is a feature that forces app publishers to make it perfectly clear to you, the user, what private data each app may collect from you and what the collected data might be used for. Needless to say, this hasn't made Apple any friends in the big tech world, with Facebook being the most vocal and open protester of App Tracking Transparency to this day.

So Apple could very well be the most user privacy-protecting smartphone company, but there are some things you should know, especially if you're an iPhone user. Your privacy may not be as secured as you believe, even if you're rocking the newest iPhone 13. Here's why...

There's a small chance that a photo of yours could end up seen by someone at Apple

This year Apple may have done some damage to the trust it has built with its users, when it announced that iOS 15, and thus the iPhone 13 out the box will be coming with software that scans for CSAM (Child Sexual Abuse Material).

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With the aim to prevent any spread of child abuse materials on Apple devices, the company was going to use artificial intelligence algorithms to scan user messages for "sensitive content".

But more notably, Apple was planning to start scanning everyone's iCloud Photos on-device to check if any images are a match with known CSAM image hashes, provided by child safety organizations.

In simple terms, your iPhone will automatically scan the "digital fingerprints" of all your photos as they get uploaded to iCloud, which is usually the case by default. And if a photo matches with any CSAM image hashes, or ends up otherwise flagged due to any potential errors in the scanning algorithm, that and more of your photos may get manually reviewed by an Apple employee.

Apple is sure to point out that the process is extremely privacy-oriented, and it's reasonable to believe that the likelihood of an algorithm error is tiny, but it's there nonetheless. Or at least it's going to be once Apple actually launches this tech via an iOS software update.

As we mentioned, Apple's plan was to enable CSAM scanning with iOS 15, but after numerous reports from researchers claiming Apple's CSAM scanning could be very dangerous, plus backlash from users and reportedly even Apple employees, the rollout was delayed for a few months. But it's still coming.

Apple's current statement on the subject is as follows:

Hey Siri, don't listen in on us having sex, please

Back in 2019, a whistleblower revealed that Apple was sending snippets of iPhone users' interactions with Siri to a third-party contractor, in order to help Apple improve Siri's performance.

Around that time, Apple said that less than 1% of Siri's daily activations were being sent to said contractors for the purposes of checking whether the virtual assistant was activated on accident.

Of course, this ordeal raised some questions, as an accidentally activated Siri could have potentially recorded and relayed some sensitive audio.

A lawsuit followed, and a US judge concluded that Apple can be sued for recording snippets of Siri's interactions with users for grading purposes.

Apple later suspended the program that collected and shared Siri's audio recordings of users, accidental or otherwise.

But even today in 2021, Apple's Siri privacy page reads:

This means that what you tell Siri might still be seen by someone at Apple in text form, but at least it won't be an audio recording of your voice or daily life activities. In any case, you might want to watch what you say while Siri is listening.

Like many others, Apple may be asked by the NSA to disclose your private conversations, or is doing it already

There's a notorious US government surveillance program called PRISM, via which the NSA (National Security Agency) is said to collect user communications from the big tech giants.

Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Apple have all been identified as participants in the program. However, many of these companies have denied their involvement, and due to the secrecy of government programs like this one, it's all but impossible for us to know who's lying and who's telling the truth. Or prove a company's involvement in PRISM concretely.

It's also up for speculation who may be, or could end up being a target of this program, and how much of their private information companies like Apple are required to share with the NSA.

And to be fair, it's hard to put blame on companies like Apple for things that are essentially out of their control. But it's also hard to deny that the PRISM program and its alleged involvement may well be a privacy issue that concerns us all.

So all in all, is your new iPhone 13 protecting your privacy or not?

The iPhone 13 came with iOS 15. And iOS 15 was supposed to get the previously-mentioned CSAM tech, which would've made this question more difficult to answer.

But as it stands, at least for now, yes – there's no reason to worry over your privacy on your iPhone. If you're a private person, you may want to disable Siri and automatic iCloud Photos uploads, but other than that, as Apple puts it, what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.

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