The Washington Post has put the cat among the pidgins by accusing Apple of automatically collecting search information entered into OSX Yosemite and iOS 8’s Spotlight search. While internet users are used to the big search engines (such as Google and Microsoft Bing) hovering up users’ search terms and geolocation data (in order to feed them location specific ducads), the difference (according to the WP), is that this is the first time the OS itslef is doing the collecting.
When you enter a search into Spotlight (including when searching for files on your own hard drive) a popup window appears saying that Apple collects data in order to provide results ‘more relevant to you.’ Apple explains:
‘When you use Spotlight, your search queries, the Spotlight Suggestions you select, and related usage data will be sent to Apple. Search results found on your Mac will not be sent. If you have Location Services on your Mac turned on, when you make a search query to Spotlight the location of your Mac at that time will be sent to Apple. Searches for common words and phrases will be forwarded from Apple to Microsoft’s Bing search engine. These searches are not stored by Microsoft. Location, search queries, and usage information sent to Apple will be used by Apple only to make Spotlight Suggestions more relevant and to improve other Apple products and services.’
By default your precise location will be sent to Apple, and although this can be turned off (see below), Apple ‘may use the IP address of your Internet connection to approximate your location by matching it to a geographic region’ to deliver relevant search suggestions, and there is no way to opt out of this.
‘With iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite, searching with Spotlight now goes beyond your device to give you suggestions from sources like Wikipedia, the iTunes Store, and Maps. Before it answers, Spotlight considers things like context and location while protecting your privacy by using an anonymous identifier that refreshes every 15 minutes. You can always opt out of Suggestions and continue to use Spotlight solely for local search on your device. You are also free to opt out of having Spotlight use Location Services any time you want. If you opt out, Spotlight will still use your IP address to determine a general location to make your searches more relevant. Unlike our competitors, we don’t use a persistent personal identifier to tie your searches to you in order to build a profile based on your search history. We also place restrictions on our partners so they don’t create a long-term trail of identifiable searches by you or from your device.’
However, we find the fact that you cannot opt-out of Location Services completely problematic, and given Apple’s past history of cooperating with the NSA, do not like having to simply take its word on what it does with the data it collects. We also have little faith in restrictions placed ‘on our partners,’ (who are also implicated in PRISM), ‘so they don’t create a long-term trail of identifiable searches by you or from your device.’
As chief executive of Plausible Labs, Landon J. Fuller, observed to the Washington Post,
‘If we look at Yosemite, we see that Apple collects extremely detailed metrics about their customers’ web and Spotlight searches. They may be using those metrics to explore improvements to their own search technology instead of to sell to 3rd-party advertisers, but they’re still collecting them.’
Criticisms that Windows, Ubuntu, and Android are also moving towards tighter integration with cloud service services are somewhat closer the the mark, although this is a) hardly something to boast about, and b) such integration not (yet) anywhere near as complete on these systems.
How to turn off Location Services for Spotlight Suggestions in Yosemite
- Go to System Preferences -> Privacy -> Details (next to System Services) -> and disable ‘Spotlight Suggestions’
- Go to System Preferences -> Spotlight -> Search Results -> and disable ‘Spotlight Suggestions’, ‘Bookmarks and History’, and Bing Web Searches
- Safari users also need to go to the browser Preferences -> Search -> and disable ‘Spotlight Suggestions’
Landon Fuller has written a script called fix-macosx.py, which applies these changes automatically, and which can be downloaded from here.
Remember that even with all these settings turned off, Apple still collects rough location data using your IP address, although this can be defeated by using a VPN service.
It should also be noted that when it comes to web searches, using a third party open source browser such a Mozill’a Firefox, together with a search engine that does not track users (such as DuckDuckGo or Start Page), is the best way to prevent yourself being tracked and geotagged by Bing or Apple.