Apple takes a dig at Facebook as it announces improved security features in Safari on macOS Mojave and iOS 12

After the Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke, amidst everything else, there definitely was a battle of words between the CEOs of Apple and Facebook.

The first hint was the absence of the Facebook app from the wall of apps that was splashed on the display screen, as the media made its way into the San Jose McEnery Convention Centre for the Apple WWDC keynote address by CEO Tim Cook. There were a lot of apps absent from that wall, but Facebook was conspicuous by its absence, considering just how popular it is.

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California. Reuters.

Apple Chief Executive Officer Tim Cook speaks at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC) in San Jose, California. Reuters.

After the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica data scandal broke, amidst everything else, there definitely was a battle of words between the CEOs of Apple and Facebook. Tim Cook gave a point-blank answer when he was asked how he would've handled the Cambridge Analytica situation. Cook stated that, he would never be in such a situation in the first place. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called this response ‘extremely glib’.

On the first day of WWDC 2018, Apple took another jab at Facebook as it announced some of its new Intelligent Tracking Prevention features which will be bundled in the next version of the Safari browser on macOS Mojave as well as iOS 12. This feature of Safari will let it block any tracking by social media sites which have their ‘Like’ or ‘Share’ buttons along with Comment widgets. These widgets aren't as benign as they seem and their very presence is enough for the likes of Facebook to track your activities.

Every time a website is trying to track you on Safari, you will be notified and asked whether you want to give that permission.

While presenting the new Safari features, Craig Federighi, senior VP for Software Engineering said, “We have all seen the ‘Like’ buttons and ‘Share’ buttons, and these ‘Comment’ fields. Well, it turns out, these can be used to track you, whether you click on them or not. And so this year, we are shutting that down.”

He then showed a pop-up bubble which will show up asking for your permission every time Safari browser detects any tracking app trying to access your cookie information.

The pop-up message read: "Do you want to allow 'facebook.com' to use cookies and website data while browsing 'blabbermouth.net'? This will allow 'facebook.com' to track your activity."

The site, which was found to be harvesting our data, was Facebook. Of course, this could have been any other site for demo purposes, but instead, Apple went to the extent of naming Facebook. In the ongoing anti-Facebook atmosphere, a callout by a company of Apple’s stature is telling. The fact that Apple, unlike Google, Facebook and Microsoft, isn't reliant on selling us ads to make money should make this all the more irksome for Facebook.

Apple's announcement did, at least, rub Facebook’s chief security officer, Alex Stamos, the wrong way. In a response to a tweet, he said that if Apple was indeed serious about preventing tracking, it should disable all third party javascript and pixels. This was later followed by a Twitter argument on Apple's alleged monopoly in the browser space. With an overall share of about 14 percent to Chrome's 58 percent, it's hard to see the relevance of the argument.

The other interesting feature pertaining to browser security was to do with preventing intelligent tracking using a process called ‘browser fingerprinting.’

Now in addition to cookies, there is another method called ‘Fingerprinting’ which helps data companies identify your device or you as an individual when you are browsing the web, based on certain key aspects. These include device configuration, its fonts, and the plugins that you might have on the device. These parameters let data companies draw patterns to enable them to track you and your device.

Apple introduces the upcoming MacOS Mojave at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Image: Reuters

Apple introduces the upcoming MacOS Mojave at the Apple Worldwide Developer Conference (WWDC). Image: Reuters

“With Mojave, we are making it much harder for trackers to create unique browser fingerprints. We are presenting web pages with simplified configurations. We show them only built-in fonts. And legacy plug-ins are no longer supported, so they can’t contribute to a fingerprint. As a result, your Mac will look like everyone else’s Mac,” said Federighi. What this means is that data companies will not be able to identify your devices, and it will be difficult for them to present you with targeted ads.

These two tracking related features come at a time when the discussions around user data privacy have become increasingly mainstream. Of course, given Safari's limited market share, compared to Chrome, it's not like Facebook will miss out on too much data.

I do wonder what loophole Facebook will find next to exploit, though.

Disclaimer: The correspondent was invited by Apple India to California for WWDC 2018. All his travel and lodging expenses were taken care of by Apple India.

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