Apple Cracks Down on Apps Sharing Information on Users’ Friends

June 13, 2018 Last Updated: June 13, 2018

Apple Inc. changed its App Store rules on June 4 to limit how developers harvest, use, and share information about iPhone owners’ friends and other contacts.

The move cracks down on a practice that’s been employed for years. Developers ask users for access to their phone contacts, then use it for marketing and sometimes share or sell the information—without permission from the other people listed on those digital address books. On both Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android, the world’s largest smartphone operating systems, the tactic is sometimes used to juice growth and make money.

Sharing of friends’ data without their consent is what got Facebook Inc. into so much trouble when one of its outside developers gave information on millions of people to Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy. Apple has criticized the social network for that lapse and other missteps, while announcing new privacy updates to boost its reputation for safeguarding user data. The iPhone maker hasn’t drawn as much attention to the recent change to its App Store rules, though.

As Apple’s annual developer conference got underway, the Cupertino, California-based company made many new pronouncements on stage, including new controls that limit tracking of web browsing. But the phone maker didn’t publicly mention updated App Store Review Guidelines that now bar developers from making databases of address book information they gather from iPhone users. Sharing and selling that database with third parties is also now forbidden. And an app can’t get a user’s contact list, say it’s being used for one thing, and then use it for something else, unless the developer gets consent again. Anyone caught breaking the rules may be banned.

IPhone contact lists contain phone numbers, email addresses and profile photos of family, friends, colleagues, and other acquaintances. When users install apps and then consent, developers get dozens of potential data points on people’s friends. That’s a treasure trove of information that developers have been able to use beyond Apple’s control.

Following the launch of the App Store in 2008, contact-list abuse surfaced from time to time, and in 2012, Apple added a way for users to explicitly approve their contacts, photos, location information, and other data being uploaded by developers. Some apps, including Uber and Facebook, let users remove contacts that have been uploaded. Even so, there’s no mechanism to do that for all apps that have been installed on an iPhone.

Aside from that, Apple’s rules on contact lists have remained relatively consistent for a decade. Balancing user privacy with the needs of developers has helped the company build a profitable app ecosystem. Apple said that developers have generated $100 billion since the App Store launched. The company typically takes 30 percent of app revenue and runs search ads in its App Store.

“They have a huge ecosystem making money through the developer channels and these apps, and until the developers get better on privacy, Apple is complicit,” said Domingo Guerra, president of Appthority, which advises governments and companies on mobile phone security. “When someone shares your info as part of their address book, you have no say in it, and you have no knowledge of it.”

While Apple is acting now, the company can’t go back and retrieve the data that may have been shared so far. After giving permission to a developer, an iPhone user can go into their settings and turn off apps’ contacts permissions. That turns off the data faucet, but doesn’t return information already gathered.

The Google app store works a similar way. On the company’s help page about app permissions, under “Important,” it says, “If you remove permission for an app, this action won’t delete the info the app already has. However, the app can’t use new info or take actions from that point on.”

The difference is that Google mostly keeps quiet about how it uses people’s data for advertising, while Apple often talks about not collecting user information or building profiles of them. The iPhone maker also rolled out extra privacy controls to comply with a strict new European law earlier this year and has fought U.S. government efforts to access user data on its devices.

One developer contacted Bloomberg News in the aftermath of Facebook’s Cambridge Analytica scandal, expressing concern that Apple users may not understand what developers can see when they provide access to their contacts. The developer requested anonymity for fear of retribution from Apple or the developer’s employer.

Once a user clicks OK, developers can download the information the user keeps about everyone in their address book. That might include not only names and phone numbers, but other data such as birth dates, home and work addresses. If people attached a photo to their friends’ profiles, the developers get that, too. The app maker can also learn when a contact entry was created and edited, giving clues on the accuracy of the phone number, and whether this is a new or old acquaintance.