Apple Mac OS criticised for sending search results to third parties

Apple is under pressure to make changes to the Spotlight feature on the new Mac OS X Yosemite 10.10, which tracks location and sends data back to the firm and third parties.

Apple Mac OS criticised for sending search results to third parties
Apple Mac OS criticised for sending search results to third parties

The Cupertino technology giant released the new Mac operating system at the unveiling of its latest iPads in San Francisco last Thursday but it quickly transpired that Yosemite, which is the successor to Mavericks (Mac OS 10.9), had one feature that fell short on privacy expectations.

Yosemite has generally been well-received by tech journalists, from its flatter user name, the Handover iOS sync feature, dark mode and the ability to manage extensions to the new ‘Spotlight' feature which collects search results from Mac, iTunes, the App Store and the web.

However, Spotlight has since come under scrutiny following a close examination of Apple's terms and conditions. The application collects search terms for applications or files by default – and then passes this and location data onto Apple and third parties including Microsoft. This led renowned privacy researcher Ashkan Soltani to call it “probably the worst example of ‘privacy by design' I've seen yet.”

He added later that simply opening Spotlight results “your precise location” being sent to Apple by default.

“When you use Spotlight, your search queries, the Spotlight Suggestions you select, and related usage data will be sent to Apple,” reads the company's terms and conditions page.

“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,” the disclaimer adds.

Web developer Landon Fuller has since built the https://fix-macosx.com/ website which says that users of the newest Mac OS can ‘restore privacy' by disabling Spotlight Suggestions and Bing Web Searches under System Preferences > Spotlight > Search Results.

Users are also advised to un-check “Include Spotlight Suggestions” under Safari > Preferences > Search, as Apple's own browser is set by default to send a copy of all search queries back to the company. Spotlight is also believed to collect this data on iOS 8 – the mobile operating system for iPhones and iPads – although it isn't turned on by default.

The same website goes onto detail how researchers are now working to alert Apple on other as-yet-unreported privacy and security flaws.

“Spotlight isn't the only Mac OS X Yosemite feature that unnecessarily phones home; a myriad of system and user processes are sending data to Apple in a default configuration, and we want to fix those, too,” reads the web page.

As a result, the group behind the website has built Yosemite Phone Home – a collaborative project on Github to ‘identify additional data that is collected by Apple and other third parties.

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