iOS 17’s Creepy-Sounding ‘Discoverable by Others’ Journaling Setting Isn’t Actually Creepy

Speaking of The Wall Street Journal and Apple’s new Journal app, Joanna Stern has a great column about a creepy-sounding Journal setting:

You can turn on Journaling Suggestions. This recommends topics to write about based on things your phone (but not Apple) knows about you — music you’ve listened to, people you’ve called or messaged, photos you’ve recently taken, places you’ve visited, etc. You decide if you want to turn this on. When you first launch the Journal app, it will prompt you to do that. Those suggestions aren’t ever shared with Apple.

Here’s where it gets weird. When you go into Settings → Privacy & Security → Journaling Suggestions, you’ll see that Discoverable by Others is enabled by default — even if you never turned on suggestions. Under the setting it says, “Allow others to detect you are nearby to help prioritize their suggestions.” [...]

A company spokeswoman said claims on social media that Apple is sharing your name and location with others are inaccurate. The phone can use Bluetooth to detect the number of devices nearby that are in your contacts. It doesn’t store which of these specific contacts were around but instead may use this as context to improve and prioritize journaling suggestions, the spokeswoman said.

Here’s an example provided by Apple: Say, you hosted a dinner party at your house, with friends who are in your contacts. The system might prioritize that in the suggestions, as it knows from the head count that there was something different about that event. It wasn’t just your average night at home with your family.

This is a fine feature, and I think it’s fine that it’s on by default. But the description of the feature in Settings is just atrocious. It sounds creepy as hell. I suspect this is one of those cases where everyone at Apple involved with the feature knew that everything related to the new Journal app and associated new journaling-prompt APIs is, in fact, extraordinarily private. Just like with Health data, everything is stored on-device, including the keys, and iCloud sync is E2EE. Even if faced with a law enforcement warrant, Apple has nothing to turn over related to Journal.

But most people don’t know this. And many people — quite reasonably! — are deeply suspicious that all big tech companies are spying on them and play loosey-goosey with anything related to privacy. To someone at Apple — especially those who work on Health and Journal stuff — it’s absurd to think that Apple would even consider adding a setting to iOS that makes you personally “discoverable” by anyone, friends and strangers alike, if you’re simply within Bluetooth range of their iPhone. Let alone make that setting on by default!

But that’s exactly what the description of this feature in Settings → Privacy & Security → Journaling Suggestions sounds like. When describing features like this, Apple needs to presume that the user is assuming the worst.

Thursday, 28 March 2024