Did you know Mac OS X Yosemite is secretly stealing your keystrokes?

You might think I’m aggrandizing a trivial issue or creating a sensational headline so I can drive traffic to my blog.  But to be honest with you – this isn’t about me or my blog.  It’s about you.  It’s about your friends and your family.

Don’t get me wrong, Mac OS X Yosemite is a beautiful operating system. The new, diaphanous, frosted window frames are lovely and the flat UI is svelte and sexy.  But beautiful comes at a cost and in this case Apple is furtively compromising your privacy.

Have you ever heard of a wild animal called the Slow Loris?  It is unequivocally one of the cutest animals on earth yet it is still capable of giving humans anaphylactic shock.

This is what Apple is doing with Yosemite.  The exterior is beautiful but the insides are deadly.

Let me show you what’s going on.

What’s the first thing you do when you hear about a new Apple software release?  Do you download and immediately install it so you can be the first person on the block to check it out?  Or perhaps you’re a little more circumspect and prefer to wait until the biggest bugs are exterminated.

In either case, I can tell you one thing for sure:

Most people don’t read privacy agreements.

Mac OS X Yosemite Spotlight Privacy Agreement

When Apple unleashed Yosemite on October 16th, presumably hundreds of thousands of people rushed to upgrade their Macs.  And they don’t even realize they’re being tracked.

Showing a spotlight on your private data

One of the biggest feature “improvements” ushered forth by Yosemite is the new Spotlight search app.  Spotlight now not only lets you search your computer for files but also crawls the web from one convenient location.

Initially this seems like a good idea.  Apple is essentially empowering users to get more out of their Macs by expanding their search universe to the cloud and beyond; however, there’s an insidious privacy issue disguised behind the nebulous text on the Spotlight screen.

The first time you click the little magnifying glass in the upper right corner of the screen you’ll see the following warning:

In addition to searching your Mac, Spotlight now shows suggestions from the Internet, iTunes, App Store, movie showtimes, locations nearby, and more.  To make suggestions more relevant to you, Spotlight includes your approximate location with search requests to Apple.  You can change this in Preferences.  Learn More…

So here’s my question:

What the heck does this equivocal statement mean: to make suggestions more relevant to you, Spotlight includes your approximate location with search requests to Apple.

There’s no other way to construe it: by default Apple is tracking your location.

Sure, it says it’ll use this information to improve search but what else could it use it for?  In other words, what exactly is Apple doing with all that tracking data?

As hundreds of thousands of people download and install Yosemite, they are automatically being tracked by Apple.  Right out of the gate, Apple is corralling analytics on the restaurants you visit, the parks you frequent and your favorite coffee shop.

Something about this just seems wrong to me.

Mac OS X Yosemite Spotlight

Of course, Apple’s rejoinder would be “[o]ur commitment to protecting your privacy comes from a deep respect for our customers” but the bottom line is that Apple is harnessing, no – I need a better word: amassing, voluminous data about you that is extremely detailed and we really can’t know what Apple is doing with it.

Perhaps it is faithfully guarding our privacy but maybe it is surreptitiously selling it to rapacious advertisers in Russia…

Who knows.

Telling Apple to back off

This entire debacle is infuriating so today I’m going to show you how to tell Apple to get out of your business.

We need to disable spotlight and bing suggestions in two places:

  • Spotlight preferences
  • Safari Search Preferences

Press Command + Space and type:

sys

Hit enter and System Preferences will show up ready to do your bidding.

In the upper right corner of the top row, click the Spotlight icon and then uncheck Spotlight Suggestions.

We need to scroll down and uncheck Bing Web Searches too.

Mac OS X Yosemite Spotlight Settings

Now we need to tell the Safari browser to mind its own business as well.

Kick open Safari and open preferences by pressing Cmd + , (that’s a comma) and click the Search tab.

Now in the Smart Search Field uncheck Include Spotlight Suggestions.

Mac OS X Yosemite Spotlight Suggestions in Safari

Alright, now you’re good.  Hopefully these options won’t get reset in a future update…

My feelings on this crap

I get the notion that Apple is greedy.

Instead of being a champion of protecting user privacy, it is seizing the ubiquity of its operating system to catalog private information for its own purposes.

The fact that Apple avows that “related usage data will be sent to Apple.” means nothing to me.  Being honest about your intentions doesn’t change the nature of your intentions.

Why can’t Apple just be more upfront with customers about privacy?  Why can’t it simply disable this snooping crap by default?

After the NSA incident and the recent proliferation of security incidents in the news, Apple should be chagrined for ignoring the privacy needs of its customers.  Yosemite is a reminder that Apple has abdicated its responsibilities to protect the public.

… and that’s just plain messed up.

The Bottom Line

Apple may gainsay the privacy argument by saying that it’s easy to disable the privacy leak or that it explicitly tells customers they can change the default privacy settings; however, I wonder how many users understand the scope of the problem to even begin to act?  And why does the operating system default to siphoning your private data?

Why is Apple snooping by default?

Shouldn’t it be disabled until the user consciously enables it?

Another counter-point to the privacy fiasco is that your personally identifiable information is occluded from the search queries.  In other words, even though Apple is tracking your location and search queries it never gains access to your name – so there’s nothing to worry about.

Fine, that might be a fair point but don’t you think that if a company the size of Apple continues to cull search queries from users for a long enough period of time that it can eventually paint a behavioral mosaic of the kind of people conducting those searches?  In other words, it seems to me, given enough time Apple will have such copious facts about Yosemite users that they’ll have enough data to reasonably deduce who initiated the searches.

Big data is big business and Apple is using yours to benefit itself.

But at least we know how to tell Apple to back off now…

How do you feel about all this?  Let me know in the comments.

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Posted in Apple, Mac OS X 10.10 Yosemite, Safari, Web Browsers Tagged with: , ,
  • Chill

    Sounds a lot like the bing desktop search. Or the stuff canonical did when including the web lenses. And yes, all that _should_ be off by default. On the other hand: The vast majority of the paying customers is just too *cough* to change defaults. And there is a good financial interest in your customers data.

    So everyone is doing the defaul = evil thing … for money! PTUI!

  • HC

    Umm… That’s what Google does every day and nobody complains xD? At least, I don’t, nothing special about me…

  • chris

    Choose one. This article is…
    a) Slightly paranoid.
    b) Just paranoid.
    c) Ultra paranoid.

  • disqus_NiW9vFbyx2

    Does Safari on my iPad mini do this, too?

  • johannes b bols

    I couldn’t hate Mac anymore than I already do. But thank you for the info!