Apple: our glasses will guard your privacy, honest

Apple’s Vision Pro interactive glasses may be the latest big thing in tech, but they’ve also sparked big concerns about how user data will be secured. In response, the company has released a whitepaper that seeks to allay fears.

Because the high-tech goggles depend on having “always-on camera streams” of a user’s eyes and the world around them to enable interactive spatial experiences, they could potentially enable unscrupulous hackers to read someone’s thoughts.

“Where you look can reveal what you are thinking, such as links you almost clicked or apps you thought about downloading,” says Apple. “To keep your thought process private, where you look before you interact with content is not shared with Apple or the apps you are using, and does not leave your device.”

Well, that was considerate of Apple. I wouldn’t want to pay three-and-a-half grand for the privilege of having my very thoughts being mapped and monetized, now would I?

Similarly, Apple insists that a “guest user” setting allows an owner to regulate who can access a device and what apps and data they can access.

“You can configure a Guest User session to allow access to all apps and data on your device or limit the apps they can interact with to just those currently visible,” it said. “This enables you to share experiences, like showing a friend a spatial photo you took of them, without giving them unrestricted access to your entire device.”

And that’s not all, folks. The Apple Vision Pro goggles have, wait for it, privacy built in. OK, I'm told it's an industry term, but I doubt it means much to the average customer. Anyway for what it’s worth, here it is in the tech giant’s own words.

“We integrated hardware and software on Apple Vision Pro to protect your information in light of the unique privacy challenges posed by spatial computing,” it said. “Apple Vision Pro features, from using it with your eyes and hands to showing digital content in your physical space, also have privacy built in.”

Trying too hard?

Pray forgive my cynicism, but one generation into what promises to be the most privacy-free century in the history of humankind – and I’m factoring in the totalitarian regimes of the 20th when I say this – I’m finding it a bit hard to take all this seriously.

The whitepaper begins with the following statement: “At Apple, we believe privacy is a fundamental human right. Like all our products, Apple Vision Pro and visionOS were built with privacy and security in mind from the beginning.”

At the end, it signs off with: “As we continue to explore what’s possible with spatial computing, our work to bring privacy to life is not and never will be finished.”

To bring privacy to life? Oh, I’m sorry – I wasn’t aware it was something that needed resurrecting. Call me old-fashioned, but I was rather under the impression that it needed to be guarded, respected, and preserved, not brought back from the dead like Lazarus of old. Guess I didn’t get the memo on that one.

It’s this kind of weasel wording that, for me, makes it so hard to avoid the feeling that – though it may be genuine in its concern for customer data privacy – Apple is trying a little too hard here.

Or to paraphrase a certain English playwright, methinks ye companie doth protest too much. Because let’s not forget, Apple has a lot to lose from risking its long-cherished reputation for guarding user privacy. With these data-hungry glasses, the tech veteran may just have overstretched itself.

Nevertheless, Apple insists its four guiding principles underpin the design of Apple Vision Pro – namely, data minimization, on-device processing, transparency and control, and security.

Apple’s four-point promise

It remains to be seen whether Apple will be able to make good on this four-pronged pledge – if there’s one thing most cybersecurity professionals seem to agree on, it’s that if a thing can be hacked at some point, it will be.

Apparently unfazed by that consideration, Apple insists its goggles and supporting platform visionOS will “minimize how much information developers, including Apple, can collect by only using the data necessary to support seamless spatial experiences.”

Meanwhile, on-device processing means that the glasses will process data on the premises, so to speak, “instead of sharing it with Apple or other developers.”

It goes on: “To protect where you look, the hover effects that are shown when you look at content are rendered on-device by visionOS and are not shared with the app you are using.”

The visionOS also purportedly gives users control over how and when their data is shared and used, and also “includes control over sharing hand movement and surroundings data with apps.”

Finally, data used in the Optic ID feature that allows users to unlock their devices, authenticate purchases, and sign in to apps is encrypted and “never leaves your device.”

If the feature is disabled, “all Optic ID data, including mathematical representations of your iris, will be removed from your device.”

Apple adds: “Optic ID uses the Secure Enclave, a special subcomponent of the M2 chip, to store and protect your sensitive biometric data.”

Gee, the Secure Enclave special subcomponent of an M2 chip guarding my biometric back? I feel safer already.

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