Privacy is a big deal with Apple and the iPhone is one of the most private around. Now you can spy on the spyware and track the trackers with features built into in iOS 15 and later. Here’s how.
It is a mystery to most people what goes on inside a phone and inside apps. Even very simple apps can be several megabytes in size and you have to wonder what all that code is doing. We know that some apps spy on us by collecting information and sending it back to their owners or to some unknown destination on the internet, but can you trust them when they claim that they don’t?
How trustworthy are apps on the iPhone. We know that Apple has strict guidelines for apps in the iOS App Store, but occasionally apps are booted out for various reasons. No matter how careful Apple is, some apps with dodgy code might slip through.
The privacy information displayed in the App Store when you are looking at an app is not compiled by Apple, but is supplied by the developer, who swears it is accurate. But is it?
Apple has included a new feature from iOS 15 onward that enables you to spy on the activity of apps. It shows what apps are doing without your knowledge, such as accessing sites and services on the internet. When you open an app, do you really know what it is doing and who it is sending information to? With this new privacy feature you can find out.
Let’s record app activity on the iPhone and see what apps are really doing. You must have at least iOS 15 on your iPhone to follow this.
1 iOS Settings app
Open the Settings app on the iPhone and look down the list of items until you come to Privacy. The feature we want is in there. Press it.
2 Record App Activity privacy feature
Most of the settings in the Privacy section look familiar, but if you scroll right down to the bottom of the screen you will see something new, an item called Record App Activity. That is new from iOS 15 on. Tap it to open it.
3 Enable activity recording in iOS
App activity recording is off by default and nothing is recorded. Turn the switch on to start it recording.
4 Record app activity and save it
Now iOS is recording the activity of apps, such as when they access photos, contacts, domains, camera, microphone, and so on. It says that it produces a 7-day summary. However, you do not need to wait for a week before you see anything and at any time, even after just 10 minutes of using apps on your iPhone, you can return here and press Save App Activity and examine it.
You will see activity recorded since you turned on the feature – 10 minutes worth if you only turned it on 10 minutes ago, but up to a week if you leave it a week.
5 Save app activity
The usual options are here and the App Privacy Report can be sent using Messages or Mail, or passed to other apps. Swipe up to see more options.
Choose where or how you want to save it. I will save it to iCloud Drive. The report is not particularly useful on the iPhone and you will find it easier to read if you transfer it to a computer – PC or Mac. iCloud Drive can be accessed on a Mac, but you could use OneDrive, Google Drive, Dropbox and others, or email it to yourself.
6 View app activity
Here is the App Privacy Report in a text editor, BBEdit on a Mac, but you could use a text editor on a PC. It looks complicated and hard to understand. If you look carefully, you can see domain names and you can work out which apps were accessing which domains.
Turning off word wrap might make it easier to understand, but it is never going to be simple. Apple has an article on Inspecting App Activity Data which may help, if you are interested.
The file was 24 K, which was about five minutes activity, opening apps, quitting, switching and so on. A whole week’s activities could therefore result in a very large file, probably several megabytes worth of data. Turning off Record App Activity deletes the log file being generated.
Now that the feature is available to everyone, perhaps a programmer will come up with a utility to read the output and present it in a simple way that most people can understand.