The Web has become a bigger place and, at the same time, has also become more dangerous. Seeing that most users are unlikely to change bad habits, browser makers are taking up the cause to implement secure and private features that are eventually enabled by default. One such feature is called Safe Browsing and has become enabled by default in iOS 13 with every little warning beforehand. Now it turns out that this feature is sending some information, particularly IP addresses to Google and to Chinese Internet giant Tencent.
To be fair, the feature known as Safe Browsing is really more about security rather than privacy. It’s an attempt to fend off malicious sites and phishing scams by comparing the website addresses you’re trying to visit against a database of well-known bad sites. Cryptographer and John Hopkins professor Matthew Green goes into the detail on how Safe Browsing works but, in a nutshell, it requires that the user’s browser communicate with a Safe Browsing provider which, in turn, would give providers certain pieces of data, an IP address at the very least.
In Apple’s case, it names Google and Tencent as these providers but actually makes no mention of any of these. It didn’t mention that Safe Browsing would be enabled by default in iOS 13 nor does it even warn users about potentially sending their IP addresses to those two companies. That information is only available via Safari’s Privacy Terms, which you’ll only know about if you go looking for it. It also doesn’t make it clear which data is sent to which provider in which context or markets.
It’s a very uncharacteristic behavior from a company that loves boasting about its privacy and security measures. Granted, it might be practically impossible to implement its Safe Browsing feature without using Google’s or Tencent’s servers but it should have at least given users the choice and the information to make that choice.
This isn’t to knock Tencent’s credibility, although the company has been noted to cooperate very well with the Chinese government’s demands for information. It may be just as good or as bad as Google but the problem is that everything so far seems to have been shrouded in silence and mystery. In light of recent international events that have started creeping into the tech industry, it could also be a slippery slope for Apple.