Apple Data

It’s a near certainty that over the last few weeks you’ve received several emails asking you to consent to companies’ amended privacy policies. The short version of the story is that this shift in how companies handle your data has been inspired by the advent of a new piece of EU legislation: the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). It’s not a panacea – and goodness knows the raft of emails it inspired was irritating – but it’s a step forward in data privacy, and notably it establishes a European position even further advanced beyond the US one than was previously the case.

Several of the bigger operators in online services (ie. those companies whose main business is the providing of online services, as opposed to companies who do other things but have a web presence) have offered a data export service for some time. Google Takeout was the first I had any cause to interact with, and I found it an admirably simple and transparent process. As part of the fallout from the Cambridge Analytica scandal, more people seemed to be made aware of Facebook’s data export service. Requesting one’s data from these companies, and receiving it in a giant ZIP file, can be quite overwhelming – particularly if you’ve been a heavy user of their products for some time. But it’s also fascinating. The cache of information you might readily associate with your interactions with the company makes up a small portion of the total: a visible peak of the proverbial data iceberg. The rest of the folder is full of stuff you had either known at some point that they were collecting, but had forgotten, or that you had no idea was being collected in the first place. I recommend doing it if only for the weird feeling of being presented with a box of facts about yourself that someone else has taken note of.

Whether directly inspired by GDPR or not, Apple recently started offering a data export service. So, out of nothing more than sheer curiosity, I requested everything they have on me. Excavating the folder that came back has been super-interesting. Here are a few select pieces of what’s included.

  • Every Apple device ever associated with my account, and every firmware version that has ever been installed on each.

  • Every email address, physical address, and payment option ever associated with my account.

  • Every device from which I have ever logged into my account. This included items like ‘RIVERSIDE22’: my work PC at a job I had in 2009, and listings such as ‘Mendicant Bias’ and ‘Penitent Tangent’ from when I used to name my machines using embarrassingly nerdy references (2011).

  • Predictably, every purchase I have ever made from iTunes, starting with my first: ‘Kiss Me’ by Sixpence None the Richer on 5 Aug 2005.

  • Also, every free item I’ve downloaded from an Apple digital store.

  • Every song and album I’ve played on MUSIC; how many times I’ve listened to it; when I first played it, and when I last played it.

  • A complete catalogue of every song or album I have expressed a binary opinion about on MUSIC.

  • Hilariously, a subfolder containing a separate document that simply lists the tracks from the U2 album Songs of Innocence, which Apple infamously forced upon everybody with an internet connected iOS device in 2014, and which the majority of us deleted instantly.

  • Every item for which I have engaged in the dubious practice of pre-ordering a digital good.

  • Every item I’ve ever watched on my TV, including a timestamp of where I left off. (A playcount is also included, revealing my worrying Mr Robot viewing habits.)

  • A colossal spreadsheet listing every episode of every podcast I have ever listened to, the date I listened to it, a timestamp of where I left off, and whether or not I am subscribed to the podcast in question.

  • A list of all my iBooks purchases, alongside separate documents that mark the position I’ve reached in each book, any highlighting I’ve done, and any annotations that I’ve added.

  • Every review I’ve left for an item in an Apple digital store, including the rating out of 5 and any comments I made.

  • Every time I’ve complained about another customer’s review of a product in an Apple digital store!

  • Every app I’ve beta tested via Apple’s Testflight.

  • Every store item I’ve ever gifted, and every gift card I’ve ever redeemed (including date of redemption and value).

  • PDF copies of all of the email receipts sent to me following in-person purchases at an Apple retail store. These go back to the time I bought a blue ‘bumper’ for my iPhone 4 in June 2013.

  • Every product for which I’ve taken out AppleCare+.

  • Every interaction I’ve had with AppleCare support.

  • The transcript of every chat I’ve had with AppleCare support. Interestingly these also include the text of chats between Apple employees relating to the support ticket.

  • All of my responses to surveys regarding my customer service experiences.

  • All of my earned achievements and leaderboard positions for GameCenter enabled iOS games.

  • Safari browsing history and bookmarks are empty folders in my case (because I routinely purge them), but they’re in there.

  • Details of recent FaceTime calls and message recipients are also blank in my case because I have a habit of erasing the histories every week. But, it would all otherwise be there.

  • Map locations I’ve marked as favourites.

  • Copies of all iCloud calendars and Reminder lists (both as .ics files).

  • Copies of all my iCloud contacts as vCards.

  • Plaintext copies of all items kept in iCloud folders in Notes, with rich media attachments in separate folders. Also, a list of any shared notes, with whom they are shared, and the applicable permission structure.

  • Every correction I’ve submitted to the Apple Maps team, including screenshots.

  • An .xml file of every wifi network I’ve connected to and chosen to remember the login credentials for.

  • Finally, in a folder named ‘Other Data’, an absolutely colossal spreadsheet listing every action involving my iCloud storage. It’s a chronological list of every photo / video I’ve uploaded to iCloud, and every time it’s been downloaded on another device; every time I’ve deleted a file from iCloud storage; every time I’ve recovered a recently deleted file; every time I’ve uploaded, downloaded, and deleted a photo from my Photo Stream; every interaction I’ve had with photos / videos in a shared album; every document added to iCloud Drive, and every time I’ve modified one or deleted one; every time I’ve applied a tag to a file in iCloud Drive; every time I’ve enabled or disabled an app to work with iCloud Drive… basically any time anything I’ve done has touched my iCloud storage. Interestingly it’s named ‘iCloudUsageData Set1.csv’ and contains entries only for the last couple of months (it’s still thousands and thousands of rows).

Awe is not something one expects to feel when looking at a series of spreadsheets, but I’m in awe of the engineering it must take to build a system like this. Notably absent from this trove of data is the more personal stuff. I’m an Watch user, and none of the data around my heart rate, exercise habits etc. is here. I also use the Health app and Medical ID on iPhone, and so those apps have information on my weight, blood type, medical history etc. That data is also not included here. Apple has made clear from the launch of those products that user privacy is paramount, and (outside of your devices) that data is only contained in backups the user creates locally and chooses to have encrypted. Similarly the text of iMessage chats is not part of the data that Apple keeps; those are encrypted end-to-end and unreadable by anyone but the sender and recipient, including Apple.

It’s also worth thinking for a moment about why Apple keeps the data that it does. In the vast majority of cases it is kept in order to improve the user’s experience. If I download a film or a podcast episode to a new device and it picks up where I last stopped playing it, I don’t think about the giant spreadsheet that made that possible – I’m just delighted that it works that way. All of the ratings I’ve given items on MUSIC are used to generate custom playlists more to my liking. And, don’t forget the small miracle of logging into a brand new device with one’s AppleID and having all of one’s data available effortlessly: contacts, calendars, notes, music, photos etc. etc. etc. Depending on your age you might recall the stressful, laborious processes involved in transferring all of this stuff before the ubiquity of the cloud.

In short, there’s nothing here that I disagree with Apple retaining. And a large part of that is because I know it is not part of Apple’s business model to leverage this data for their own gain. The data that Facebook and Google retain on you is certainly used to improve your experience with their products, but it is also used to enable their business models, which are reliant almost exclusively on advertising. Despite its growing array of products (digital and physical) 86% of Google’s revenue still comes from advertisers. In Facebook’s case the figure is 98%.

Perhaps the most striking omission is the fact that there is no record of purchases I’ve made using Pay. Such data points would likely be too potentially rich a seam of information for an advertiser-dependent company to resist collecting, speaking directly as it would to my purchasing habits, preferred brands, and so on.