Protecting Your Privacy While Using Apple Devices

  Matt Cone       September 5, 2021      Tutorials Apple Internet Security

Macinstruct has been a strong advocate of Apple and its products for over twenty years. Unfortunately, some of Apple’s recent design decisions have undermined our faith in Apple’s commitment to privacy.

We’re now encouraging readers to protect their privacy by disabling certain Apple features. In situations where privacy is a hard requirement, it may be necessary to consider using non-Apple hardware and software. This article provides an overview of our recommendations and your options.

Reviewing Apple’s Privacy Claims

Apple takes a strong approach when it comes to privacy-related public relations. Apple CEO Tim Cook has said that “privacy is a fundamental human right” and Apple has invested millions of dollars on marketing and advertising campaigns saying that what happens on your iPhone, stays on your iPhone.

But the company’s actions don’t match the aspirational messaging. Apple recently dropped its plans to let you fully encrypt the data stored on Apple’s iCloud servers. The company has also revealed a plan to implement a backdoor that will scan the files stored on your iPhone.

A charitable view of these developments is that Apple mistakenly made bad design decisions. A darker view is that Apple is actively cooperating with federal agencies to facilitate surveillance at the expense of users. In any case, the lesson is clear: We can’t trust Apple to protect our privacy now or in the future.

What Apple’s Decisions Mean For Your Privacy

Apple’s recent decisions have several important privacy implications:

If you’re a journalist, activist, or just the type of person who cares deeply about privacy, you should take steps to secure the data on your Apple devices. This guide provides several tips that can help protect your privacy and minimize the risk of your data landing in the wrong hands.

What Apple Can Provide to Law Enforcement Agencies

Depending on what settings you have enabled, Apple can share a wide variety of your personal and private information with law enforcement agencies. For example, according to Apple’s Legal Process Guidelines, Apple can share the following iCloud data with government agencies:

iCloud content may include email, stored photos, documents, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, Safari Browsing History, Maps Search History, Messages and iOS device backups. iOS device backups may include photos and videos in the Camera Roll, device settings, app data, iMessage, Business Chat, SMS, and MMS messages and voicemail.

Disabling iCloud Backups

The truly paranoid among us should disable iCloud completely. But for many, that won’t be practical. iCloud is convenient, especially when you need to sync data across multiple Apple devices. A compromise, perhaps, is disabling the iCloud backups of your devices.

When you have iCloud backups enabled, virtually all of the data on your device is uploaded to iCloud servers. Disabling this feature is a must for people concerned about the privacy of their data.

Here’s how to disable iCloud backups on your iPhone:

  1. From the iPhone’s home screen, tap Settings.
  2. Tap your name.
  3. Tap iCloud.
  4. Tap iCloud Backup.
  5. Tap the iCloud Backup slider to the off position.

You should also consider disabling iCloud backups on your other devices (e.g., iPad).

Disabling iCloud Photos

Apple has indicated that the backdoor it plans to install on your iPhone will scan the photos you upload to iCloud. To sidestep this, you should disable iCloud photos entirely. In theory, if you disable this feature, Apple won’t scan the photos stored on your device.

Here’s how to disable iCloud Photos on your iPhone:

  1. From the iPhone’s home screen, tap Settings.
  2. Tap your name.
  3. Tap iCloud.
  4. Tap Photos.
  5. Tap the iCloud Photos slider to the off position.

You should also consider disabling iCloud Photos on your other devices (e.g., iPad and Mac).

Protecting iMessages

iMessage is Apple’s instant messaging service that you can use to send text messages, photos, and more to other people who own Apple devices. iMessage is end-to-end encrypted, but when you have iCloud backups enabled, your iMessage encryption key is stored in your iCloud backup on Apple’s servers. That allows Apple to decrypt and provide your iMessages to law enforcement.

To keep your iMessages private, you should disable iCloud backups as described earlier in this guide. You can leave the iMessage synchronization features enabled — in theory, Apple does not store those encryption keys if you have iCloud backups disabled.

Note that even if you don’t have iCloud backups enabled on your devices, your contacts might. The messages you send to your contacts could be stored in their iCloud backups. To be on the safe side, you should use an alternative secure messaging application like Signal.

Disabling Location Services

If you have certain location services enabled, Apple can track and record your iPhone’s location over time. To prevent this, you should disable the Location Services, Share My Location, and Find My iPhone features on your iPhone.

Here’s how to disable location services on your iPhone:

  1. From the iPhone’s home screen, tap Settings.
  2. Tap Privacy.
  3. Tap Location Services.
  4. Tap the Location Services slider to the off position.
  5. Tap Share My Location.
  6. Tap the Share My Location slider to the off position.
  7. Tap Find My iPhone.
  8. Tap all of the sliders (Find My iPhone, Find My network, Send Last Location) to the off position.

It’s worth noting that your mobile network provider can also track and record your iPhone’s location over time. If you don’t wanted to be tracked going somewhere (e.g., a protest event), you should consider leaving your iPhone at home, turning your iPhone off, or putting your iPhone in airplane mode.

Switching to Decentralized Systems and Open Source Software

In situations where privacy is a hard requirement, it may be necessary to consider using non-Apple hardware and software. You can find a good list of privacy-centric software and services at Privacy Tools. Generally speaking, the following alternatives will work for people with a degree of technical aptitude:

In terms of hardware, Linux is a now a viable alternative for most people. For example, instead of buying another MacBook, you could purchase a Linux-first laptop. System76, Framework, and the Dell XPS Developer Edition running Ubuntu are all good options.

Additional Information

Subscribe to our email newsletter

Sign up and get Macinstruct's tutorials delivered to your inbox. No spam, promise!

About    Privacy Policy    Terms and Conditions

© 2023. A Matt Cone project. CC BY-NC-SA 4.0. Made with 🌶️ in New Mexico.