iOS: Should Apple control stalkerware?

Some iOS apps only provide the options “Always" or “Never” when it comes to tracking a user’s location. Does Apple need to force all apps to offer a “While Using the App” option?

Stalkerware is the latest label given to some apps in the iOS App Store. Stalkerware apps only offer “Always" or “Never” for location tracking, and that has some iOS users very upset because they feel that their privacy is being violated by these kinds of apps.

A writer at Medium recently weighed in with a post that asked Apple to force developers to offer users the option to have location tracking on only when using the app:

It’s come to light that Uber and other companies have begun tracking our locations in more circumstances than ever. We’ve always relied on their apps to use our location — to do helpful things like find us a fast and convenient way to get where we want to go.

But this time, they’ve gone too far. They’re now insisting that they provide us our location, when we don’t need them to, or don’t want them to, to use their services.

Specifically, anyone who installed or upgraded the Uber app in the past few weeks and enabled them to view their location is now giving their location to Uber all the time (unless they subsequently manually disabled their access to their location). Uber can now track us after whenever they like — even if we have no intent to use their service anytime soon, or haven’t used their app in months.

And most users don’t even know Uber and others have this ability. It’s creepy and it’s unnecessary, and makes us unsafe.

More at Medium

The post at Medium caught the attention of Apple redditors and they shared their thoughts in a long thread. I’ll share my own take on this below, but here’s a sample of some comments from that thread:

VaultSlob: “…any app that only has "Always allow" and "Never" gets switched to "Never".”

DragonTamerMCT: “Yup. There needs to 100% be an "only when using app" option for every app.

And if the app wants always, add a third button.

I know it's Apple and they love their simplistic UIs, but I think even apple agrees that user privacy is more important than having two buttons instead of 3.”

Didn’t_check_source: “There is functionally no difference between switching it to "always allow" before starting the app and then back to "never" when leaving it, and "when active". I'm baffled that "when active" is not always an option.”

Dhjdhj: “Correct - but it requires you to actively manage/remember that you have to do that -- most users won't.”

ImANetworkEngineer: “BestBuy asks for your location to find what stores your close by to show if items are available for in-store pickup. Unfortunately the app only has Always or Never options. So yeah, never.

The Domino's Pizza app is another Always/Never app. The App still hasn't been updated to reflect the 3x size class either.”

Oldears: “Absolutely, I just went through my "Location Services" choices under the "Privacy" preference, and any app that was "Always" I switched to "While using the app." If there wasn't a "While using the app" choice, I set it to "Never" (except Waze--I figure they deserve to use my private data because they give much good to me for free). Thanks is for pointing this out--like why would Hyatt hotels need to know where I am all the time, esp the 364 days a year I'm not in a Hyatt hotel!”

BitingChaos: “This happens with apps I actually want to use my location. :/

Google Photos: Always / Never.

Google Earth: Always / Never.

(Google) Waze: Always / Never.

Apple Weather: Always / Never.

Heck, even Apple's own Trailers app use to be Always / Never. It was only this past year that they finally fixed it.”

SpeakOfTheOutHouse: “Apple should change its policy so that if apps need to request a location, they can only do so if ALL the options are available to the user.

Never When using the app All the time Anytime for the next 24 hours

There should not be any case where app developers have the ability to restrict less than all.”

DragonTamerMCT: “Absolutely. It doesn't even have to be confusing, just add extra options in a vertical fashion, in the order you listed (though I'd put 24 hours above always, since you're increasing in order from none, to always).

Boom, problem solved. More user privacy, and almost no impact to their all important UI philosophy.

Plus, Privacy > Overly simplistic design.”

DogEofUnite: “App developer here!

This could get problematic for "us" developers. I'd totally support your stance to privacy as a "normal" human being who minds his privacy. As an appdev, I have to disagree.

Some apps just really need to always see your location. Take for example apples weather app. It updates the weather in the background for your current location.

Letting the user decide on any of these four options would really make life hard as a developer. We'd always need to check against four options and implement four different solutions in code, in the worst case. This is not what clean code should look like. In General terms, there is a phrase like "let the user decide only the smallest and fewest things" to prevent bad things from happening, a developer should always determine the majority of things happening inside and outside of the software.

The problem on this one is at a different level. I'd rather suggest that developers, whose apps need access all the time, should write a letter of reasoning and submit that with the app review. So that the review team at Apple's can decide, whether or not, this app really needs access to the location all the time.

Sorry for the chunky and clunky text, it's early in the morning where I live. You can AMA to this topic if you want.”

More at Reddit

It’s time for Apple to crack the whip at developers

I must admit that the post at Medium took me by surprise. For some reason I though that Apple had already set it up so that developers were forced to offer users the “While Using the App" option at all times for location tracking. But that’s clearly not the case with apps like Uber, which only offer users the choice between being tracked all the time or not at all.

I suspect that this is an oversight on Apple’s part. The company clearly values protecting the privacy of its customers, but I doubt anyone at Apple thought that apps like Uber would skip offering users the ability to limit location tracking to only when using such apps.

I know that some folks reading this might not think that what Uber and other developers are doing is a big deal. After all, the user can simply change the Location Tracking to “Never” anytime they want, right? Unfortunately, quite a lot of people might not know they can do that or might forget about it.

So we’re left with a situation where irresponsible developers are going to have to be forced by Apple to update their apps to make sure that naive and trusting users don’t get taken advantage of by certain apps. This is unfortunate, but it just goes to show you that wherever there’s a chink in a user’s privacy armor, there will be someone who uses it for their own ends.

I am optimistic that once Apple notices this (if the company hasn’t already) it will probably revise its guidelines to force developers to fix this problem. Smart developers will beat Apple to the punch and do it themselves, right away. The dumb ones will get smacked upside the head by Apple, and will eventually be forced into doing the right thing.

Change Location Tracking privacy settings in iOS 10

If you’re worried that some of your apps might be tracking your location when you don’t want them to, here’s how you can control them:

1. Open the Settings app.

2. Tap on Privacy.

3. Tap on Location Services.

4. You’ll see a list of all apps that use Location Services.

5. Tap on the app to change its permissions.

6. Tap on Never to stop an app from tracking you.

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